“We mustn’t let workers pay for this health crisis in the same way austerity was used to make us pay for the bankers crisis – we must fight every attempt to fire & rehire workers of course – but we must also demand more – we need to fight for better pay, terms & conditions, better employment rights & a better society.”Howard Beckett, Unite Assistant General Secretary
Until this pandemic it was expected that precarious work was the number one target for Trade Unions to demand legislative change. Of course we demand the repeal of all anti- trade union legislation, the right to strike, sectoral bargaining, rights from day one and much much more. But the modern day workers shackles were perhaps no more clearly identified than in the world of zero hour contracts, bogus self employment and precarious working practices.
But who could have foreseen the emergence and explosion of “Fire and rehire”. A legal entitlement for employers to terminate contracts (fairly) abused to the extent that workers with statutory rights suddenly had their pay and terms and conditions slashed, insecurity on an industrial scale. The lines between precarious employment and employee status increasingly blurred. Employment rights, what rights?
The legalities of fire and rehire, where employers use, or threaten to use, a weaknesses in the law that allow them to sack workers only to reemploy them on reduced terms.
It is a grotesque practice that is outlawed in many other European countries – but amid the health and economic insecurity that covid has brought us employers are using fire and hire more than ever before. They have of course even used it, whilst using the Job Retention Scheme which entitles the employer to tax payer money during the consultation period. Immorality seems to have no bounds. A Job Retention Scheme being used as a tax payer fund to make workers redundant or to slash their terms and conditions.
For Unite the industrial scale of fire and rehire first reared it’s ugly head with British Airways. BA choosing workers Memorial Day to give notice to 42 Thousand workers that their contracts were to be terminated, 12k to be made redundant and a massive 30k to be reemployed on dramatically reduced terms and conditions, including losses in wages of 40% plus for loyal employees who had made billions for the shareholders of the IAG Group. On the day of the notices Cabin Crew buried a colleague who likely contracted Covid from repatriating British Citizens.
BA made 66% of the IAG Group £1.9bl profits the previous year. The remaining profit was made by Air Lingus and IAG airline, neither of those companies imposed fire and rehire because the laws in Ireland and Spain prevented the IAG Group from doing so.
Ultimately Unite fought back against BA, the fire and rehire was defeated but changes to terms and conditions still happened, and people were made redundant.
But this became the start of a contagion that would strip though all sectors and all nations. British Gas, Rolls Royce, Go North and Tesco’s in Livingston- a company that has made billions in profit during Covid rewarding staff by using the excuse of the pandemic to take the chance to make structural changes to contracts of employment.
Opportunism at it’s finest. One of the worst examples of Fire and Rehire came from Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham, with porters alongside all NHS staff clapped in April every Thursday night only to be fired and rehired in December. Their rotas changed to such an extent that their lives are to become sleep to work.
Unite have called for an amendment to our existing employment legislation to outlaw `fire and rehire’ – we know our UK employment law is one of the worst in Europe – and not just our employment law, we have the worst sick pay in Europe and the UK’s approach to health and safety in the workplace is among the worst in Europe.
The government have a duty to step in to protect industries from the impact of this health crisis – but they also need to ensure this awful fire and rehire practice is now outlawed. Of course they will not.
Our poor employment laws has had a direct impact in how workplaces have responded to this crisis, forcing workers into unsafe work spaces, refusing to carry out adequate risk assesments, and having the lowest sick pay in Europe has meant people forced into carrying on working when ill coupled with the very many failures of this government – it’s no wonder that we have the highest death rate in the world.
The Financial Times last week said: “The Black death is often credited with transforming labour relations in Europe, Peasants, now scarce. Could bargain for better terms and conditions and wages started to rise. Thankfully, a much lower mortality rate means such a transformation is unlikely to follow corona virus.”
A damning indictment of how the establishment view us – well we need to prove them wrong – in the coming months unions will play a pivotal role in ensuring workers organise and demand changes coming out of this crisis.
As we proved in BA ultimately it is the taking of industrial action that will safeguard the rights of workers.
Across our sectors, regions and nations we must be ready to take that industrial action like never before.
It is immoral for employers to play fast and loose with employees’ lives like this in the middle of a pandemic.
We mustn’t let workers pay for this health crisis in the same way austerity was used to make us pay for the bankers crisis – we must fight every attempt to fire and rehire workers of course – but we must also demand more – we need to fight for better pay, terms and conditions, better employment rights and a better society – and we must expect the backing of not just one union but the entire Labour movement in the fight for a better society.
- Howard Beckett is Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union and led for Unite in BA dispute.