This week, British Gas engineers across the country will be confronted by a terrible choice: accept a fifteen percent pay cut or lose their job. Thousands of engineers could be plunged into economic uncertainty, while those who refuse to sign new contracts risk being condemned to the ever-growing dole queues.
This is a disastrous outcome for key workers who have laboured so tirelessly to keep our homes warm and connected during the darkest days of the pandemic. It’s also a shameful indictment of the parent company Centrica, who have callously betrayed their loyal and long-serving employees to boost shareholders’ profits.
I have been deeply moved by the testimonies of British Gas workers, who have spoken of the many sleepless nights and immense mental toll that this decision has wrought. But sadly, their experience is far from unique.
While much of the public has come together to support one another as we grapple with this terrible disease, far too many unscrupulous employers have exploited the public health crisis to attack their employees’ pay and conditions. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimate that just under one in ten workers have been impacted by fire and rehire tactics since the pandemic began in March.
For younger workers, this figure rises to a staggering eighteen percent. And BAME workers have been twice as likely to be affected than their white colleagues – a stark reminder of the institutionalised racism that still pervades much of the job market.
As a lifelong trade unionist and former regional secretary for Unite the Union, I’ve dedicated my life to protecting and advancing the interests of workers. And I’m devastated by this latest onslaught on workers’ rights. But I have also been deeply encouraged by the response of the labour movement. It’s been a privilege to join both frontbench and backbench members of my party in condemning these appalling tactics in the House of Commons.
I’ve also been proud to stand side by side with the trade unions as they’ve fought back in defence of their members. Our movement is set for a fresh wave of strike action after Easter, with strike dates planned by Unite members at Heathrow Airport and GMB members declaring an official lockout at British Gas from April 1st. I will stand with them all the way.
The labour movement will fight this assault on pay and job security tooth and nail and it will fight to win. Workers’ action can defeat the bosses.
But at the same time, the Government should act. Time and time again, ministers have condemned these despicable measures from the despatch box. But over a year into the pandemic, too many workers’ livelihoods remain in peril.
In Parliament last week, the Leader of the House said that the Government needed time to consider a report into the issue from the employment body ACAS. But British Gas engineers and the countless workers like them across the country simply cannot afford the delay. Parliament must outlaw fire and rehire now to stop these ruthless bosses in their tracks.
This isn’t just about the workers whose livelihoods and working conditions are under threat. It’s also about securing an economic recovery that works for everyone. The Conservatives’ shambolic handling of this public health crisis has left our country wrestling with the deepest economic downturn in living memory. And every time an employee’s pay is slashed, we are dragged one step back from recovery.
It means not only more families struggling to make ends meet, but also less money spent in our local shops and on our ailing high streets. The bedrock of an economic recovery must be well-paid secure work, with trade unions at the very heart of workplaces. But that’s not possible while employers are free to fire and rehire their workforces as they please.