Unite has kicked off a national campaign to end “despicable” fire and rehire tactics being used by “bad bosses” with a coordinated day of strike action across the country as it warned that workers are now facing a “pandemic of greed”.
Commenting on the campaign launched today, which will see workers and supporters go on strike, arrange solidarity actions and leaflet workplaces, Howard Beckett called on the government to ban the controversial practices.
“Millions of people all over the country are facing the sack if they don’t accept less pay and worse conditions. That’s thousands of pounds stolen out of the pockets of families and millions sucked out of communities,” he said.
Boris Johnson has previously described the use of fire and rehire tactics as “unacceptable”, and the government promised in 2019 that it would bring forward a new employment bill to improve people’s rights at work.
But Labour MP John McDonnell recently argued during an online rally that there is nothing in the government’s employment bill that “discourages employers from using brutal fire and rehire tactics to force through permanent wage cuts”.
“After months of pandemic hardship, this is no way to treat people,” Beckett said today. “The government knows this is wrong and can end fire and rehire. It’s already banned in Ireland and Spain and unacceptable in other competitor economies.”
Research by the TUC recently found that one in ten workers had been threatened with fire and rehire during the coronavirus pandemic and Beckett warned that use of the practices will only grow as the end of furlough approaches in September.
“Businesses have been supported in the pandemic,” the assistant general secretary for politics and legal added. “Workers should be treated fairly too. It has been workers who have seen our nations through this Covid crisis.”
Beckett explained that the union has “members in every sector and in every nation taking industrial action” and is providing daily strike pay of £70. “Fire and rehire will be stopped,” he declared this morning.
“Workers cannot be made to pay for a crisis they have not caused. The government knows this is wrong and can end fire and rehire with one stroke of a legislative pen,” he argued. “But if the government won’t do the right thing, then Unite will.”
Labour MPs earlier this month renewed their call for government ministers to ban employers from using fire and rehire practices as hundreds of British Gas workers lost their jobs in a wave of mass sackings amid a dispute with their employer.
Commenting on the launch of the campaign, Andy McDonald said: “Boris Johnson and his ministers can’t continue to stick their fingers in their ears to avoid hearing story after story of bullying and abusive fire and rehire tactics.
“More and more companies – many that are making a healthy profit and have received financial support from the public during the pandemic – are treating their workers in this disgraceful way,” the Shadow Employments Right Secretary added.
“I’m proud to stand with Unite and the whole labour movement in supporting workers, their families and communities as we rebuild out of the pandemic. The government can and must act now by bringing forward legislation to end fire and rehire once and for all.”
British Gas engineers across the country who refused to submit to accept a 15% cut in pay rates and other imposed changes to their terms and conditions lost their jobs earlier this month following 43 days of strike action.
Parent company Centrica said the contract changes were “reasonable” and engineers were choosing to leave. “Our gas service engineers remain some of the best paid in the sector, earning £40,000 a year minimum,” a spokesperson said.
Using an opposition day earlier this year, Labour passed a motion to outlaw fire and rehire. The Prime Minister ignored the motion and instructed Conservative MPs to abstain on the vote. Opposition day motions are not binding on the government.
Keir Starmer argued in September last year against fire and rehire practices, describing them as “against British values”. He told the TUC congress that the tactics should be illegal and called on the government to act to end their use.
Unite has a £40m strike fund, and is representing its members in a number of industrial disputes with employers including Go North West buses. Its drivers reported recently that they were given days’ notice to sign up to new contracts.
More than 400 drivers in Manchester have been striking against the changes to their contracts, which the union claims will increase working hours without additional pay. The business has denied that it is using fire and rehire tactics.
Managing director Nigel Fealtham said the company is losing £2m annually and said that the plan to “turn around the business” involves no job cuts. “We emphatically reject the characterisation of this as ‘fire and re-hire’,” he said.
Other disputes in which Unite is representing its members over fire and rehire tactics involve Brush Electronics, Goodlord lettings SAICA, Tesco and Jacobs Douwe Egberts. The union successfully defeated use of fire and rehire at SPS Technologies.
According to recent reports, nearly 70% of companies accused of launching fire-and-rehire assaults on workers’ wages and conditions are making a profit and half have claimed economic support from the government during the pandemic.
Research by The Observer found that nine of the 13 employers accused over the past year of threatening to dismiss and reengage staff on worse contracts have managed to maintain healthy profit margins, with some increasing executive pay.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “We have been absolutely clear that using fire and rehire as a negotiating tactic is completely unacceptable.
“We expect companies to treat their employees fairly. If they are looking to make changes to contracts, they must negotiate in good faith and seek to come to an agreement with their affected employees or union representatives.”