This week, British Gas workers took the brave and bold decision to go on strike. It is the first national gas strike in a decade, and comes as Centrica – British Gas’ owner – seeks to implement a ‘fire and rehire’ scheme through which workers would see diminished pay and conditions.
The actions of Centrica are undoubtedly an example of a company acting without even a modicum of respect for workers’ rights or common decency. But they aren’t the deeds of a bad apple. They aren’t a glitch in the system. They aren’t an anomaly. Rather, they are the direct product of the economic policy that made British Gas a subsidiary of Centrica in the first place.
Private companies running utilities don’t do so out of the goodness of their hearts. Their motive has always been and always will be the maximisation of profit extraction. Central to any profit-driven, privately-run utility’s business model, therefore, is cost reduction. For a supply and service company like British Gas, that means slashing the pay, conditions and benefits of their workforce to squeeze as much cash out the system as possible. Money in the pockets of workers is money that could be in the pockets of shareholders.
The regulation of the sector encourages companies to drive down labour costs as the only way of increasing their appeal to customers. A private company can’t deliver a world-class public service and ensure that workers are fairly treated and adequately remunerated at the same time as funnelling cash to money grabbing shareholders. That’s why British Gas workers are forced into taking strike action, it’s why our country is plagued by fuel poverty and it’s why water companies release raw sewage into our rivers rather than invest in the infrastructure needed to look after our environment properly.
There is an alternative to this. It starts with rethinking how utilities like energy, water, and broadband – as vital public services – are delivered. The privatised model can’t be reformed. It must be completely overhauled and torn out at its roots. In its place, we need our utilities to be run by and for the public, so bills can be made affordable, we can invest rapidly in decarbonisation and workers can be both treated well and given a role in decision making.
To deliver that, we need to create a model of democratic public ownership, with meaningful mechanisms through which workers, the public and civil society can steer the running of our utilities, alongside technical and academic experts. Staff who work day to day on these services understand how to improve them. The public and civil society understand the challenges facing service users and communities as well as the needs of the wider public and the planet. They should therefore be central to the oversight and direction of crucial services like our energy.
Such a model would see the end of workers being treated as disposable, and our services being treated like cash cows. It would put people at the heart of our utilities, rather than profit. And it would be a major departure from the status quo.
But we deserve nothing less. We work for our public services. We use them. We pay for them. We should own them.