Anti-Strike Bill: Step Toward Forced Labor in Britain?

The government seems willing to undermine the very bedrock of human rights law to keep employees at work, writes Aidan McQuade.

National Education Union strike and rally, London, Feb. 1. (Steve Eason, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

By Aidan McQuade

The U.K. now has government ministers who revel in their contempt for human rights, including anti-slavery protections.

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, has repeatedly and groundlessly asserted that migrants are trying to “game the system” by claiming to have been trafficked. She is doing her best to reframe slavery as an immigration matter and NGOs fear that the government’s protection responsibilities will be neglected in favour of establishing a hard-faced and xenophobic deportation policy.

This affront to national and international law has attracted criticism from the United States, the United Nations and even the U.K.’s Office for Statistics Regulation. In normal times, it would also probably attract censure from the U.K.’s own anti-slavery commissioner.

But that role is currently vacant because Braverman has failed to appoint anyone to it. How fortuitous for her.

The Right to Strike

This is not to say that this government shows no ambition. When it comes to undermining workers’ rights, it’s really looking to shine.

For that’s what it means to remove protections for victims of trafficking and “modern slavery,” terms which in part denote the world’s most extreme forms of labour exploitation. And it is also what it means to infringe on the right to strike — workers’ most powerful tool for sticking up for themselves.

This government wants to do both. In doing so, it’s moving victims of “modern slavery” and the U.K.’s general workforce one step closer together.

Let me explain further.

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill proposes that any worker [working in key public services] who wishes to go on strike on a given day may have their rights and protections to do so removed should their employer conclude that they must work to provide a “minimum level of service” — which is defined by the employer. If losses arise from workers not satisfying this employer-defined minimum level of service, the workers’ union would also become liable for a civil claim.

With regards to this anti-strike law, The Guardian observed:

“Striking itself would not be banned, but the rights of workers to withdraw their labour without fear of repercussion would be drastically reduced, as would the capacity of trade unions to provide collective representation — their raison d’être. There is no way to configure that except as a targeted assault on the foundations of organised labour and a withdrawal of fundamental economic freedoms.”


I would go a step further. This is an example of a state, the U.K., introducing measures to compel individuals to work contrary to their own choice. In the parlance of international law that is known as forced labour.

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The 1930 Forced Labour Convention, which the U.K. has signed and ratified, defines this as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

Protection from this is one of the most fundamental rights in international law, and I would say that what the government has proposed is a pretty clear-cut reversal of the protections under that convention and related domestic law.

Those Tories who have actually read the Forced Labour Convention could, conceivably, argue that the bill is sheltered by the “normal civic obligations of the citizen” exemption of the Forced Labour Convention. But the bill does not talk about “obligations” of all citizens. The bill is too preoccupied with removing rights, including that for collective representation from particular workers in named professions.

Home Secretary Suella Braver-man, center, in a meeting in December 2022; Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to right of her.  (Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Others might argue that restricting the right to strike is nothing like forced labour, because workers can still quit. Employers might be able to threaten dismissal if minimum service levels aren’t maintained, but they can’t (yet) prevent people from walking out the door.

Perhaps. But, as many such workers cannot reasonably quit their jobs because of the risks of abject poverty this would entail, the bill is a proposal to abuse those workers’ positions of economic vulnerability to remove their freedom of choice in work, and in protest.

“Abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability … for the purpose of exploitation,” by the way, is language found in the international law on trafficking. We’re in dangerous territory here, and for the government it’s not a good look.

In short: the proposed measures of the government’s anti-strike bill look scarily close to a nascent form of state-sponsored forced labour.

Aidan McQuade is a writer and independent human rights consultant. He was director of Anti-Slavery International from 2006 to 2017. Prior to that he worked extensively in development and humanitarian operations, including from 1996 to 2001 leading Oxfam GB’s emergency responses to the civil war in Angola. He is the author of a novel, The Undiscovered Country, and the nonfiction book. Ethical Leadership: Moral Decision-making under Pressure, published in 2022

The original version of this article was published in openDemocracy.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “Anti-Strike Bill: Step Toward Forced Labor in Britain?

  1. Red Star
    February 3, 2023 at 08:42

    Well, its not exactly a new thing in the UK. More part of the political culture.

    Back in the 1930s there were government labour camps for the unemployed. If the males of the family submitted to them, the rest of the family continued to receive unemployment benefits. If they didn’t, they got nothing. Part of UK social history that is swept under the carpet.

    In more recent decades, camps have been replaced with various types of “work experience scheme”, but the basic premise remains the same : submit or lose your income.

    Having been on several of these schemes over the years, one thing I can be sure of : they very rarely seem to lead to actual jobs.

    And why would they ? The “employer” gets state-subsidised labour for a few months, then waves them goodbye and replaces them with more state subsidised Labour. No need to employ someone on a proper wage.

    Although, to be fair, the schemes do create some jobs – a whole parasite industry of companies who the government pay to administer the schemes.

    What does the government get out of this ? The unemployed person on a scheme is counted as no longer unemployed. They’re not employed, you understand, just not unemployed. Welcome to limbo !

    This is reflected in the unemployment figures.

    • Valerie
      February 4, 2023 at 05:54

      I didn’t think of it in those terms, but you’re absolutely right. What a scam.
      (“Money for nothing; chicks for free” comes to mind.)

  2. durablewill
    February 2, 2023 at 23:31

    The irony is hard to ignore. The nation and culture that produced Eric Blair and his dystopian masterpiece 1984 is inching toward the future that the author envisioned as a real possibility. His cautionary tale still stands as a warning. It is not hyperbole to point out the creep toward totalitarianism. When billionaire-owned media becomes a propaganda organ, the state needn’t have an Office of (Dis)Information. Discourse will only occur within the allowed parameters. If things get out of hand one may be assured that the gloves will come off and the authority of the (rotten) state will be used to keep the masters safe and secure.

    On the other hand, if all working folks refuse to be divided by distractions and cultural bullsh-t, we could help along the death and dissolution of a pernicious and unjust system. People like Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer and their clubby pals of wealth and privilege would have to actually work for a living–or face food and housing and other insecurities, as many do in the system that they enable.

    General strikes prove who really make things work. Americans should take a lesson from this.

  3. Eddy Schmid
    February 2, 2023 at 20:34

    This is “OLD NEWS”. My state in Australia passed LEGISLATION way back in the 90’s, making striking without Government approval Illegal, thus a crime. Perpetrators can be charged and gaoled if found guilty. How do I know this ? Because at the time, I was President of my workers Union fighting a forced Individual Workplace Agreement, intended to replace our Award which had stood for 100 years.
    I was informed at the completion of the case, (which was conceeded as inappropiate) by the opposition Lawyers, that the strike I had called was ILLEGAL and could have resulted in me loosing my home if charged. They could not explain, why I wasn’t charged. Be that as it may, today, our Govt does not hesitate, to constantly advise workers any unsanctioned strike is ILLEGAL and consequences will follow.

  4. bardamu
    February 2, 2023 at 18:11

    Lest we mistake intentions, this is far from the first move towards forced labor. Add this in with the long development of “soft” weapons against assembly like water cannons and tear gas and capsaicin spray and so forth, add these in with the 24/7 and 365 electronic surveillance of pretty much everyone, and you have to see a long development not only towards forced labor, but towards more directly and intensely coerced forced labor.

    Forced labor is at present a foundational cornerstone for all large societies, though we should not for that reason ignore the considerable differences between having more or less violent coercion or more or less extensive micromanagement. Still, the commons have been taken from populations all over. This is most immediately obvious respect to First Persons and Native populations, but it is equally true of populations upon whom aristocratic theft was imposed centuries earlier. In the context of this theft of the means of production, goods and services are held for ransom as a means of “soft” coercion to force not only labor, but labor directed in allegiance, labor designed to perpetuate power structures already in place by assuring profit and the means of coercion to the powerful.

    As the ill-defined cabal referred to as “the elite” or “the 1%” or whatever lay waste to what they have stolen in their careless rush to maintain power, it becomes more evident that large changes are in the offing. Hopefully, the population can organize to retain some small hold over what those might be.

    • Valerie
      February 2, 2023 at 19:05

      “Lest we mistake intentions, this is far from the first move towards forced labor. ”

      Well barmadu, let us hope we are mistaken and we won’t see “Arbeit macht frei” displayed above any Amazon warehouses, Starbucks cafés or government offices in the near future.

  5. durablewill
    February 2, 2023 at 12:32

    Our rulers have decided that we’re all getting too uppity and are thus deciding to resort to the remedy that finally gives the lie to the myth that people in the UK or U.S. live under a democracy, i.e. rule by the people: authoritarianism.

    Our rulers and their paid minions in our political parties are essentially saying, Yes, you are showing your displeasure with mass public protests and demonstrations (direct political action) and polls DO show a 70 or 80% support for the position you advocate, but we are much smarter and better informed than you ignorant people who elected us to represent you, and WE know what’s really best for you (and we CERTAINLY know what’s best for us politicians).

    So we lose our freedoms and the power of our citizenhood by degrees, and if we accept this like a whipped dog we have only ourselves to blame. Indeed, revolution, not fake representation, may be the only way forward.

    The system itself is flawed and rotten beyond repair by representational means. The fix is in, and capitalism is destroying democracy and our planet.

    • Valerie
      February 2, 2023 at 18:43

      The UK is but a symptom of the ills of capitalism, monarchy and imperialism. No doubt the rest of Europe are suffering for their ill-gotten sycophantic following of the European Union/USA war against Russia, but the UK now has to contend with being out there on a limb; isolated as a sole entity, retaining its currency (devalued formerly by two incompetent idiots) which it never gave up even as a former member of the EU. (The arrogance.) The right to protest is subject to draconian rules. Parliament is governed by millionaires, racsists (who should look to their history) and opportunists. It’s a shambles.

    • WillD
      February 2, 2023 at 20:11

      Agreed. This is more about suppressing dissent than anything else. Striking for better pay or conditions is a form of dissent.

      The UK regime (can’t call it government anymore, because it isn’t democratic) doesn’t want any form of dissent, whether spoken, written, or demonstrated by strikes and protests. It is working hard to make Britain a fully totalitarian state. Censorship and groupthink are well established, as is large scale surveillance, now they just need to get people off the streets in groups.

      A few days ago The Grayzone’s planned #No2NATO rally was cancelled by a London theatre that had been intimidated by online bullying and harassment (hxxps://

      How much of that intimidation was done by the UK intelligence services, I wonder?

  6. Jeff Harrison
    February 2, 2023 at 12:32

    You make a powerful case. We should probably treat Britain like we’ve been treating China (even tho’ there’s no such similar law in China).

Comments are closed.