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UK prison officers in strike action

London, 30.08.2007

Thursday 30 August 2007

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The prison officers association (POA), whose right to undertake industrial actions was taken away in 1993 under the Tory (Conservative) government, remains in trouble with the Justice ministry and the Prison service.

Fruitless talks, this time focussing on a new pay deal, have frustrated and de-motivated the prison officers even more and eventually culminated into the first national strike of the prison officers in 68 years, on 29 August 2007. However, underlying problems exceed the pay issues; overpopulated prisons create an ever more dangerous work environment, the hygienic state of some prisons is unacceptable and, worst of all, the POA and its members have no means whatsoever to express their dissatisfaction with the current situation. The POA ‘voluntarily’ signed an agreement with the government not to go on strike, expecting decent compensatory measures. However, the ‘independent pay review body’ is yet another example of how the UK government shifts all responsibility for collective bargaining into the hands of other agencies and bodies. The UK lacks a solid collective bargaining structure that every healthy democratic state should have and believes that threatening with trials in court that could even lead to imprisonment solves the problems. Spontaneous actions such as this national strike do not bring any good to 1) the prisoners, 2) the trade union and employees, 3) the government, 4) society as a whole. However, it is the UK government and its stubbornness regarding trade union rights within the justice sector that is to blame for these actions.

In a BBC News interview, the UK Justice minister Jack Straw calls the actions ‘wholly unjustified’ and states: ‘My first responsibility is for the security of the public […] and secondly to ensure the safety and well-being of the prisoners’. This once again shows that priority is definitely not put on the daily well-being of the people working in the prisons and with the prisoners. Mr. Straw underlines that negotiations and talks are the way to solve the problems that prison officers face today. The POA could not agree more, however, negotiations have appeared fruitless and the threat of being called to court certainly does not improve the union-government relations.

Eurofedop sympathises with the POA and strongly supports its actions. With a long standing experience in trade union rights throughout Europe, Eurofedop too recognises that the UK government is in the wrong. The same twists of the UK government can be observed in the discussions on the new EU treaty in which it calls for an opt-out on the Charter of Fundamental Rights meaning that this charter would not be legally binding for the UK.

As the European Treaty puts freedom, justice and security at the centre of its priorities, Eurofedop will be organising a project on these matters next year. This ‘security conference’ that will take place in London will deal with the issue of trade union rights in Europe, and the UK. This conference will provide the opportunity to extensively discuss this issue, and to examine how the situation in particularly the UK can be improved. The situation in the UK resembles a time bomb. It is high time that a lesson is learned from European neighbours with healthy trade union and collective bargaining charters.

Brian Caton, Secretary General POA

Please view this link for interviews with Minister Straw, the POA Secretary General Brian Caton and a reaction of Prime Minister Brown.

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