The UK’s largest recruiters and staffing companies have attacked government plans to replace picketing workers with agency staff, arguing that the use of temporary workforces to break industrial action would prove inflammatory.

In a letter to Kwasi Kwarteng seen by the Financial Times, the bosses of companies such as Adecco, Hays, Randstad and Manpower urged the business secretary to rethink proposals to repeal a decades-long ban on providing agency workers to cover the duties of striking staff.

“We can only see these proposals inflaming strikes — not ending them,” the groups warned Kwarteng in their letter.

Ministers want to reduce the impact of the wave of summer strike action threatened across industries from rail and buses to teaching, as workers fight for higher pay amid a cost of living crisis. But the largest staffing companies, which would be asked to fill in those jobs with agency workers, are set to fight the plans, given concerns that they would become part of the problem rather than the solution.

The government this week put forward draft legislation setting out amendments to the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003. The proposed amendments would remove the prohibition under regulation 7 that has “prevented employment businesses from introducing or supplying agency workers to hirers to replace individuals taking part in official strike or official industrial action”.

The 13 staffing companies brought together by Sarah Thewlis, chair of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, said they felt “compelled” to write to Kwarteng to express concern over the government’s “unhelpful” move.

“We strongly believe it has the potential to cost our businesses — as we will be held responsible for sending strikebreakers across a picket line and putting our workers in harm’s way,” wrote the companies, adding that it would “not matter if our individual businesses choose not to supply — the industry will be called into disrepute”. 

Kwarteng’s threat to reverse the ban on agency workers has also been criticised by the labour unions, while employers have said many roles affected by the strike could not be filled by agency staff.

Ministers were critical of ferry operator P&O for using agency staff to replace workers on its ships earlier this year.

Recruiters also criticised the government for not engaging with the industry over the plans, but rather telling newspapers about the move without launching a consultation or taking in the views of companies being asked to step into the gaps created by striking staff.

“We had hoped that news reports would be followed by consultation with us — as this is, after all, a change to the key piece of legislation for our industry,” they said in their letter.

The staffing industry contributes almost £40bn a year to the UK economy, the letter said, adding: “At a time when we should be working collaboratively with government and other business leaders to address the more pressing needs of our economy, this is an unnecessary distraction.”

In response, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said “the business secretary makes no apology for taking action so that essential services, such as train lines, are run as effectively as possible”.

“Allowing businesses to supply skilled agency workers to plug staffing gaps does not mandate employment businesses to do this,” it added.

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