Behind the British Gas Strike

Taj Ali

As the British Gas strike returns to the picket, we speak to the workers involved – about the threat to their family lives, bullying 'fire and rehire' tactics, and how one company's celebration of key workers rang hollow.

This month, Ben is one of thousands of British Gas engineers taking strike action. It follows a proposal put forward by British Gas’ owners, Centrica, to fire and rehire workers on inferior terms and conditions in the wake of the pandemic. Their union, GMB, rejected the terms overwhelmingly – with 89 percent supporting strike action. But the company is ploughing ahead.

Ben isn’t a new hire. He has been working as a British Gas engineer in South London for the past sixteen years. Like many of his colleagues at British Gas, he was volunteering with the Trussell Trust to help foodbanks during the during the first lockdown last year.

‘I was going out and delivering food parcels around the place when we first heard about the fire and rehire policy. I thought, what does that even mean? We hadn’t seen the contract yet and we already had a gun to our head saying ‘if you don’t sign this contract by next March, you’re getting the sack’.’

‘There’s not one single aspect of the new contract they’ve offered which appeals to me. Everything leaves us worse off,’ says Tom, an engineer from Scotland, where over 1,000 British Gas workers are currently on strike. ‘Look, I’ve worked with the company for fifteen years and I used to be proud to work for this company. I really do enjoy it, to go out and fix things for people. That’s great – you leave and people are happy they’ve been left with a nice warm house.

‘But honestly, it’s been a terrible place to work recently. The tactics that the senior leadership have used – it’s just been deplorable. You log into work and you don’t want to be there. You can’t stomach what they actually want to offer us.’

British Gas workers on the picket in Swindon.

The British Gas strike is the biggest dispute the sector has seen in more than four decades. In total, 10,000 workers are involved across the UK – the vast majority of whom, like Tom and Ben, have worked for the company for years. Many feel that the company’s decision to attack their terms and conditions in the midst of Covid-19, and after Centrica posted an operating profit of £229 million for its UK heating business to June 2020, up 27 percent year on year, is a kick in the teeth.

Ciara Arrowsmith, an engineer from Sunderland, is a case in point. She has been working with British Gas for the past 13 years. ‘I think morally, if you’re expecting us to work more hours you should pay us for them. The company’s stance is that it’s not a pay cut but that’s not true at all. Although our base salary is not changing, our hourly rate is.’

Work-Life Imbalance

The new arrangements will make the work-life balance a lot more difficult for many workers – particularly those, like Ciara, who have kids at home. ‘I’m going to have to ask my in-laws to look after my kids even longer and they’re in their mid-70s. That’s going to be a big ask for them.’

James has worked as a British Gas engineer in Glasgow for the past seventeen years. He’s particularly worried about the impact of the new working hours on his family life. ‘I’ve had many sleepless nights. The new arrangements have caused a lot of anxiety for many of us.

‘Previously we’d have both a summer roster and winter roster giving us our working arrangements six months in advance. Now, they want to change that to six weeks’ notice. It makes it difficult to plan holidays and swap shifts with colleagues.’

It forms part of a broader picture in the workplace across Britain, with growing insecurity making it harder to plan your life outside work. While zero-hour contracts and gig economy work tend to grab the headlines, disputes like those in British Gas show that it isn’t just in retail or delivery that this trend is taking place – but in sectors like energy, where workers have long been unionised and work was once considered relatively reliable.

‘The new arrangements will make it difficult to balance working life and family life,’ James says. ‘They also want us coming in earlier, which makes the school run more difficult to manage. We have to consider childcare costs. Just now our core hours are 8am to 8pm, but the new hours are 6am to 11pm.

‘I normally drop my daughter at breakfast club two days a week, but if I’m rostered to start at 6 or 7am I won’t be able to do that. Other engineers drop their kids off at school and pick them up after school, but what if they are rostered to start early or late? This won’t be an option.’

Many British Gas workers have been drawing attention to the impact on their family lives.

Tom finds himself in a similar situation. ‘It’s having a big personal impact. I’ve got a daughter who’s just over a year old. The way I see it is next year any work-life balance that I do have with her will just be taken away,’ he says. ‘We’re potentially going to be working an extra eight hours a week for free. They’re introducing the new bonus scheme and if you don’t carry out enough jobs, they’ll see us out of the company.’

Corporations often talk a good game on helping workers to manage their pressures outside of work, or cope with the challenges of stress, but practices like those in British Gas show how often promises ring hollow. ‘I just got an email from the company today talking about work-life balance,’ Tom tells me, ‘and I’m thinking: can you be any more hypocritical? I’m sitting here reading the email, thinking: so you want us to have a good work-life balance, but you also want me to work x number of hours from April for free. It’s extremely frustrating.’

Key Workers to Fire and Rehire

All of this sticks in the throat even more for British Gas engineers because only weeks ago they were being lauded. ‘We were classed as key workers during the start of the pandemic. We kept the nation going,’ says Paul, who has worked as a British Gas engineer in Crannock for nineteen years. ‘And all this time they’ve been hatching a plan behind our backs to strip away our terms and conditions away giving us stress and anxiety during a global pandemic.’

‘I’ve got two little girls who are under three and going forward the thought of them starting school with me being forced to work more hours and more weekends – it’s going to be tough. I want to be there for my two little girls growing up. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of family. When you’ve worked through it and kept the country going it’s a bit of a slap round the face.’

The turnaround from being celebrated to being victimised is one Tom finds difficult to grapple with. ‘I just don’t understand why they would push this fire and rehire policy when their profits are still very high and certainly for our area of the services – profits have soared 27 percent within six months and they want to reduce my income. It makes no sense at all.’

British Gas workers on strike at the Stockport depot.

In fact, Centrica is doing quite well across the board. Their UK-wide operating profits in 2019—the last ones available—were a staggering £901 million. The company says it is taking action to ‘protect 20,000 jobs in the long term’ through fire and rehire, but few British Gas engineers believe that the worse conditions will lead to any greater security.

This hasn’t stopped Centrica from pushing forward with the scheme – and at great cost to its customers. Since the start of the strike, British Gas has built up a backlog of more than 150,000 homes waiting for service and 200,000 boiler service visits axed. But, as a recently leaked tape revealed, company bosses are hoping that the Covid-19 pandemic will distract the public from the fallout.

The video provoked particular anger among the striking workers. ‘How can they possibly expect us to possibly trust them?’ Ciara asks. Recently, an MP accused British Gas CEO Chris O’Shea of lying about whether the company had issued redundancy notices to staff. For Ben, it sums up how management has dealt with its workers from the beginning.

‘All we’ve had from the senior leadership is propaganda and bullying tactics. They’ve made the contract even worse as the time goes on. The longer you leave it, the worse a deal you’re getting. And that is completely detrimental to our mental stability at the moment because we’re trying to deal with family life amid a global pandemic.

‘We’ve got enough on our plate as it is. We’re trying to deal with just paying our mortgages. We’re trying to do right by the customer and in the background, we have complete uncertainty about our future. We have no idea what’s going to happen. Literally, no idea.’

Not Just British Gas

For Ben, this is a lot bigger than British Gas. If such a well-established company with a well organised workforce can get away with forcing these changes through during a pandemic, others will follow suit. As 800,000 lose their jobs over the course of Covid-19, this is a battle with relevance to all workers.

‘With the fire and rehire policy, we’ve essentially got a gun to our head,’ he says. ‘This should not be allowed in any business especially one that is making that much money and paying their CEO that much money. To then go and threaten frontline workers with the sack?’

The strike looks set to continue into next week – and potentially beyond.

‘We’re going into houses during Covid, we’ve got a higher risk job and we’ve been given inefficient PPE,’ he continues. ‘At the start of the pandemic we were literally told to use our gloves and our masks for about ten different jobs. We’ve been treated with complete neglect.’

Tom believes British Gas is simply using the pandemic as an excuse to water down their employment rights and protections. ‘They’ve been saying Covid this and Covid that. This is nothing Covid-related because the guys didn’t come up with this plan overnight after Covid started. They’ve had a whole taskforce putting together a plan since long before.’

The impact on the workers’ mental health of spending so long on strike during a pandemic has also been severe. ‘I’ve been very open and honest with my team,’ says Ciara. ‘I’m not just a search and repair engineer, I’m also a mental health first-aider. Personally, my anxiety has been off the scale and I’m really struggling. I see it in my colleagues every day. We’re all struggling.’

It’s an experience all too common with many British Gas engineers. But, according to a new Survation poll, almost three quarters of British Gas customers support the strike against the company’s fire-and-rehire policy – something which has helped to boost morale.

Ciara is not surprised. ‘Did they really think we were going to be in customer’s houses and not talk about it? We have a really good relationship with them. Our customers often know the engineers on a first-name basis. They trust us. They tell us exactly what they love about British Gas and exactly what they hate about British Gas too. They know what’s happening and I haven’t spoken to one customer who hasn’t said good luck to us.’

While there’s been a relative lack of coverage in the mainstream press, solidarity on social media has been overwhelming. ‘It’s been so nice for us,’ Ciara says. ‘It’s been a real morale boost whenever we’re on Twitter and we’re showing pictures of us at the picket line.’

At the other end of England, Ben agrees. ‘We’ve become a family. People are striking up and down the country and we’ve really come together to demand better. We’ve had amazing support on social media. It’s really kept us going.’

The dispute looks set to continue for some time, with further strike days on the table – and the prospect of losing more pay. But for Ciara, it’s a necessary sacrifice.

‘It’s absolutely worth it in the long-run. If we don’t stand up, we’ll all be much worse off. And it’s not just for me – I’m doing this for my friends as well. Fire and rehire is an attack on all of us.

‘We’re the nuts and bolts keeping the company together. And it’s our company. We have every right to have a say in its future and to mould that future. That’s why we’re digging our heels in.’