Foreign staff at UK universities can take part in strike action without fear of endangering their right to remain in the country, the home secretary has confirmed.
Sajid Javid moved to clarify the issue after the 14-day walkout over pensions by members of the University and College Union earlier this year. At the time, concerns were raised about the potential impact on an annual 20-day limit on unpaid absence from work, which applies to migrant workers on Tier 2 skilled worker visas – and how this might conflict with employees’ right to strike.
In a written statement to the House of Commons, Mr Javid said that it was “not the government’s policy to prevent migrant workers from engaging in legal strike action; and, to date, I am not aware of any case where a migrant worker has had their leave curtailed, or been removed, as a result of having engaged in legal industrial action”.
However, “to put the matter beyond doubt”, Mr Javid said that he would introduce changes to the guidance and immigration rules for workers on Tier 2 and Tier 5 (temporary worker) visas.
“The specific change will add legal strike action to the list of exceptions to the rule on absences from employment without pay for migrant workers,” Mr Javid said. “It will make clear that there will be no immigration consequences for any migrant worker who takes part in legal strike action in the same way that a migrant worker is not disadvantaged if they take maternity or paternity leave.”
Mr Javid said that the changes would be made “at the next available opportunity” in the autumn.
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said that the change to the rules would offer much-needed clarity for international staff.
“International staff make a vital contribution to our economy, and we are delighted that they can now play a full role at work without fear of reprisal. All workers should be able to join their colleagues in defending their employment rights,” she said.
“Strike action is never taken lightly, but the previous lack of clarity meant that migrant workers who needed to take unpaid leave for other reasons could not risk taking part for fear of risking their right to remain in the country.”
Writing for Times Higher Education in May, Shreya Atrey, lecturer in law at the University of Bristol, described how “the denial of an equal right to strike” left her feeling “robbed of equal academic citizenship: of the opportunity to engage with my peers beyond teaching and research, on picket lines and in collective bargaining, building trust and solidarity on issues affecting us all”.