All Fired UP!

All Fired UP!

Fire and Rehire: a discussion with Barry Gardiner MP

Jane Darling reflects on a stirring meeting about an issue epitomising changes in values resulting in greater insecurity for working people and cavalier behaviour by employers….

As reported in the last edition of our Newsletter, on Saturday, 16th April Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North came to speak at our All Members Meeting at Sunflower House about his ‘Fire and Rehire’ Private Members Bill, formally  entitled  “Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill. Its purpose was to amend the law relating to workplace information and consultation, employment protection and trade union rights to provide safeguards for workers against dismissal and re-engagement on inferior terms and conditions”.

Before Barry took to the floor, Neil Keutenius, Unite’s national trade union representative for British Gas Services, shared his experience of the Fire and Rehire policy in action at British Gas during 2021.

Whilst British Gas profits doubled in the first 6 months of 2021 and massive pay increases were handed out to bosses, wages of workers took a significant hit and terms and conditions of employment were rejigged. The pension scheme has gone.

Neil said that the biggest loss to the company was the exodus of highly skilled and experienced employees.

Morale has suffered. Job satisfaction has been eroded by new working practices which have affected the relationship between the British gas worker and their customers.

Neil ended by saying there is huge regret and anger about the practice of fire and Re-hire. Things are improving and there is hope, but there’s a long way to go. 

Background to Barry’s Fire and Re-hire Bill.

Barry started thinking about the practice of Fire and Re-hire about 18 months ago. Initially, people generally didn’t think it was anything to worry about because they had a contract. However, it soon became clear that contracts did not give the expected protection.

In law employees can only be fired without notice for a limited number of reasons- gross misconduct, incapacity resulting in inability to carry out statutory duties or “some other substantial reason’. The latter criterion is the one seized upon by an employing company who chooses to adopt the practice.

The company can put forward the excuse, as in the P&O case, ‘We had to do it because it was the only way to survive, to stop the company going into liquidation’.

Having established that the law makes provision legitimate, Barry set about putting checks and balances into his Private Members Bill to try to ensure that Fire and Rehire or Fire and no Rehire with no redundancy, can only be sanctioned by the courts as a last resort. The Bill put an obligation on companies to open up their books so that it can be clearly established whether the company has, indeed, no choice but to resort to fire and re-hire.

Many well-known firms and companies have used this practice and Barry spent months during 2021, going round the country, drawing large crowds of protesters, to visit some of these companies to hear people’s stories about how their lives have been affected.

What he saw and heard led him to the view that this is a most destructive act of industrial management. 

Some of the companies he visited are listed here:

  • Go North Buses 
  • Clarks’ Shoes (Northampton)
  • Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda
  • British Airways

 Consequences reported by employees, or now ex-employees were :

  • A drop of £11,000 pa. in pay after being forced to sign a new contract
  • A drop in morale – “this used to be a really good company to work for” A sense of disempowerment and being ground down results in poor relationships between workers and bosses.
  • A drop in productivity – “you can’t concentrate on the job if you are feeling insecure”

These views echo the experience reported by Neil Keutenius at British Gas.

Barry summed it up like this. The motivation of the workers has gone; this is not good for the workforce, the company or the country. People are bullied and harassed into believing that they have to compete with their fellow employees for a new contract, and that they are lucky to have the opportunity.

Meanwhile millions of pounds are being paid out to shareholders – only on 28th April, it was reported by Sainsbury’s that their profits are higher than expected, and yet they are now, having used Fire and Re-hire extensively in 2018, intending to carry out the practice with their Argos staff.

Barry, understandably, after apparently getting backing from Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who both said they deplored the practice, was reasonably confident that his Bill stood a good chance of a smooth passage through Parliament, but this was not how it panned out. 

At every turn, Barry was frustrated by moves to prevent presentation of his Bill to Downing Street. 

On 21 June the Guardian reported that “Ministers have scuppered a Commons bill that would have stopped the practice of companies firing staff and then rehiring them on worse pay and conditions, saying that while they opposed such actions, legislation was the wrong way to respond. The decision prompted anger from opposition parties and unions, with the TUC saying the government had “chosen to side with bad bosses”.

The junior business minister, Paul Scully, spoke for more than 40 minutes in the chamber, ensuring that the private member’s bill ran out of time and would not progress beyond its second reading.”

However, all is not lost and the recommendations in the Bill are now central to Labour’s Manifesto on Employment Law.

In an interview for ‘Labour List’ last week Barry said in talking about Labour’s relationship with the unions:

“We need to understand our roots”… “We need not to forget. And we need to reconnect with them and understand why some unions feel that as a party we’re no longer expressing their voice in the way that they feel we should be.”

The Labour MP acknowledges that the party and the unions are going through a “rough patch”. “It’s not just a shame,” he stresses. “It’s a huge historic amnesia.” Being the voice of the unions, Gardiner argues, is something that “goes to the very core” of what Labour does as a party: “We are here in parliament because of their historic struggles. We’re here to give them a voice in our parliamentary democracy.”

Visit “Labour List” 27/04 to read Barry’s interview: https://labourlist.org

Rounding off his visit to our All Members Meeting Barry took some questions, one of which led him to talk about unity and collective action and responsibility. Whatever views we have of the Labour Party’s struggles and difficulties at present, the Labour Party is “the best instrument for social change that we have”, the “life in this country is insecure by design” and that our unions are our best conduit for reaching people.

He talked about engaging with young people by plugging into the energy of the anger which they justifiably have about the damage we have done to their futures.

Perhaps we need to take a number of leaves from his book and unite in converting our anger into positive energy to get the Tories, here in Folkestone and Hythe, and nationally, out of office!

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