Housing Charity Accused of Trying to ‘Get Around Law’ to Break Strike

‘Yet another failure’ from St Mungo’s.

by Polly Smythe

10 August 2023

St Mungo’s workers on strike. @SMUnite on Twitter
St Mungo’s workers on strike. @SMUnite on Twitter

Housing charity St Mungo’s has been accused of trying to “get around the law” by fast-tracking agency workers onto short term contracts, in the wake of a high court ruling barring agency staff from replacing striking workers.

On 13 July, the high court ruled that regulations introduced by former business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng that allowed agency workers to fill in for striking workers were unlawful.

Introducing the measures last year, Kwarteng said it was necessary to remove the “1970s-era restrictions” to prevent trade unions “holding the country to ransom”. The TUC, which brought the legal challenge along with 11 trade unions, called the ruling a “badge of shame” for the government.

As a result of the verdict, from 10 August onwards employers can no longer bring in agency staff to undermine strike action.

This poses a problem for homeless charity St Mungo’s, who have made extensive use of agency staff to undermine a strike by its workers. Agency workers have been used to cover a variety of roles within the charity, often with no prior experience of the sector.

However, internal documents seen by Novara Media show that the charity is trying to circumvent this recent ruling by converting existing agency workers onto short term contracts, in a move Unite has labelled “appalling”.

The documents describe the “reduced recommendation process for temporary agency workers,” which allows the charity to fast track the conversion of existing agency workers onto short term contracts to provide cover for striking workers.

The documents explain that the process has been “designed to support urgent cover need relating to industrial action,” and will place agency workers onto fixed term contracts for one month.

In addition, the documents note that the process was to be completed before 9 August, so workers are in place for the reinstatement of the bar on agency workers on 10 August.

Staff at St Mungo’s began a month-long strike on 30 May, with workers voting to extend the action indefinitely in June. While the dispute centres on a “pitiful” pay offer, it has brought forward workers’ anger at spiralling executive pay and a controversial, close relationship with the Home Office.

Workers at St Mungo’s say their employer’s decision to convert agency workers on to short term contracts has damaged industrial relations at the charity, which were already at a low after CEO Emma Haddad launched into an “enraged rant” at union reps at a meeting in June.

A St Mungo’s worker in Brighton, who has been with the charity for years, said: “A lot of my colleagues have lived experience of homelessness themselves. They’re in these roles because they feel a real connection to them.

“For St Mungo’s to now be saying that that’s not worth anything is really disrespectful.”

The worker said that agency staff don’t typically have experience with homeless clients, instead having a background in adult social care or care homes, which present “a very different set of complex support needs than the drug, alcohol, and mental health needs” that St Mungo’s workers are trained to deal with. “It’s like sending an electrician to go and do some plumbing. This is people’s lives we’re talking about.”

“I find it very concerning that St Mungo’s thinks it is acceptable to put our clients through this. However, it’s not surprising. When you look at our CEO, who has absolutely no experience of the third sector whatsoever and has come from the Home Office, that has a trickle-down effect.”

A St Mungo’s worker in London said: “Relationships and consistency are key in supporting our clients, and for them to be able to move on. Imagine the situation you come into as a client. You go ahead and open yourself up, and then you’re told ‘oh, next week, I’m leaving.’ And then there’s a new face.”

They said that St Mungo’s, who have increased their initial pay offer of 2.25% to only 3.7%, “would rather give free money to agencies” than to workers.

Facing a steep rent rise, the worker said they’re now facing the risk of homelessness.

In Bristol, a St Mungo’s worker told Novara Media they’re “worried that fast-tracking people through means that they won’t have the necessary skills or go through the necessary checks.”

“I’ve been here for years, and I’m still learning, and I’ll be learning for the rest of my career.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Companies and organisations had already begun to use agency workers as a way to break legal strikes. Pitting worker against worker in an attempt to union bust. As of 10 August, this will no longer be an avenue hostile employers can use.

“St. Mungo’s now needs to focus on solving this long running dispute. They need to stop looking for ways to break the strike and start looking for ways to solve it.”

“St Mungo’s seems happy to increase rents and service charges by above inflation hikes and to up their CEO’s £189,000 pay by 5%, yet they refuse to treat workers fairly. Now is the time to do the right thing.”

Unite’s national lead officer Onay Kasab said: “This move is yet another failure by the company to take the opportunity to resolve the dispute. Unite has debunked claims from the company that it cannot afford a decent pay rise. The agency issue provides further proof of this point.

“This will include short cutting DBS and performance checks. These are the tactics of an anti-union employer, not a charitable organisation.”

A spokesperson for St Mungo’s said: “We are aware of the change in legislation on using agency staff to cover duties of those taking part in industrial action and we have put in place arrangements which ensure we do not breach this legislation in any way. We have onboarded people experienced within social care or housing to ensure we keep clients safe and maintain critical services during this difficult period.

“Bringing an end to this unprecedented period of strike action remains our key priority so we can focus on supporting people at risk of or recovering from homelessness.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.


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