Ahead of the outcome of an industrial action ballot, the luxury department store, Harrods, has given notice to key members of their staff that they may rely on new laws which allow employers to use agency workers to break possible strikes.

A letter sent by the store on 8 August to staff working in-store services, engineering, maintenance and security, stated:

“Recent legislative changes relating to the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations now allows agencies to provide temporary workers to perform duties normally performed by a worker who is on strike. We are therefore no longer restricted from engaging temporary workers should any industrial action take place now or in the future.”

The ballot for strike action by Unite the Union opened on 11 August and closes on 1 September. With the real rate of inflation running at 11.8 per cent and rising, staff rejected an initial five per cent pay offer and talks with the conciliation service ACAS were agreed.

Two days before the talks, however, and without notifying Unite’s workplace representatives or officials, Harrods (which is owned by the state of Qatar), wrote to security staff offering them a seven per cent pay rise to bring their below-average wages up to industry standards.

If strike action goes ahead, there will be a picket line outside Harrod’s main entrance in Knightsbridge.

Richard Arthur, head of trade union law at Thompsons Solicitors, said:

“Unfortunately, we are starting to hear of more and more employers, like Harrods, saying that they’re going to use agency staff to cover for those taking part in industrial action.

“We maintain that the new regulations are unlawful, not least because of the government’s failure to conduct an adequate consultation with affected interests before introducing them.

“Employers who threaten to use agency workers in this way need to understand that they only harden their workforce’s resolve and agency workers are unlikely to have the necessary skills and experience to provide effective cover in many instances. Using these regulations is no magic bullet.

“Industrial action is always a last resort, but it’s a necessary one when employers won’t listen. The current government and the Tory leadership candidates are encouraging employers and the public to see industrial disputes as malicious. They view them as something they can attack for political advantage. In reality, workers take industrial action when they have no other option and nowhere else to turn. Making it harder to organise effective industrial action isn’t the answer.”