Border Force staff vote to strike over shift pattern proposals

Heathrow ballot results show "how angry and determined" members are at changes to working patterns, PCS says
Border Force workers on strike last year. Photo: Sipa US/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

27 Mar 2024

Border Force staff working at Heathrow Airport have overwhelming voted for strike action over changes to shift patterns that have seen more than 150 officials opt for voluntary redundancy.

Civil servants working at the airport, who carry out immigration controls and passport checks, voted by 90% in favour of strike action and 94% for action short of a strike in the PCS ballot.

The turnout of more than 600 officials passed the legal requirement of 50% for strike action and the additional hurdle imposed on Border Force staff that the number of individuals answering "yes" to the ballot question must be at least 40% of the number of individuals entitled to vote.

PCS said its members have voted to strike as they are “angry at planned alterations to their shift patterns [that] would have a detrimental effect on all the current staff and leave nearly 250 without a job on passport control, including many with disabilities or caring responsibilities".

The union's general secretary, Fran Heathcote, said: “Our hard-working members in the Border Force are being forced out by a belligerent employer.

“It’s clear from today’s ballot result how angry and determined our members are to protect their jobs. It’s not too late for the Home Office to do the decent thing and drop these unnecessary changes and work with the union to protect jobs and working conditions.”

The anger is over the Border Force introducing a new fixed roster from 29 April, which will put all staff into new teams and make it more difficult for officials to swap to different shifts, according to PCS. This will also see all staff move to the annualised hours allowance system (AHA), where employees get an extra allowance in exchange for the employer having control over when hours are worked and having the flexibilty to change shifts at short notice. HMRC is currently piloting a similar scheme.

Some Border Force officials have been on a legacy system where they work shorter shifts over five days rather than the longer shifts over four days a week that officials under AHA system often work. They also cannot be forced to work overtime or two hours over their rostered hours. Some 159 officials on this system have chosen voluntary redundancy rather than move to the new arrangement, while eight have quit.

A further 23 are undergoing the Home Office's restructuring, redeployment and redundancy procedure which could see them either leave, find jobs elsewhere in the department or stay if their applications for flexible working arrangements are granted. Another eight have found alternative roles in the Home Office, while 23 have moved to the new system.

The plans are also affecting staff already on the AHA system who have either flexible working arrangements or reasonable adjustments, which include people with with disabilities or caring responsibilities.

A panel has met to review each case to consider whether these adjustments could be accommodated in the new roster. In cases where the adjustment could not be accommodated due to operational requirements, people are being supported to find alternative roles.

Of the 116 officials in this situation, 47 have moved to the new roster system, either because their needs have been accommodated or because they have given up some of their adjustments or flexibilities.

Meanwhile, 21 have left the Border Force; six have found alternative roles; and 42 are in limbo for reasons including: their case "cannot be progressed for case specific reasons"; they are either considering a job offer or applying for jobs; and they are still considering joining the new roster or submitting fresh applications for flexible working arrangements.

PCS has not yet announced dates for any strikes, but walkouts could begin as soon as 8 April, the union said.

The strikes could be the first to be affected by the government’s new minimum service levels legislation. The government recently passed the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels Act), which forces some employees to continue working during strikes in certain industries, including border security.

PCS has launched a judicial review over the legislation in the courts and said it “will vigorously defend our members’ right to strike if ministers try to impose a work notice”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “As the public would expect, our priority is to keep our citizens safe and our borders secure.

“We are working closely with Heathrow Airport and have robust plans in place to minimise any delays from planned strike action. We will deploy suitable resources to meet critical demand and support the flow of passengers and goods through our border.”

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