As Britain entered its first lockdown, a newly-minted class of furloughed artisans briefly stopped kneading bread and cutting hair to gather on the doorstep and clap for key workers. The weekly show of support for carers, shelf stackers, doctors, and bus drivers was an oddly American ritual, combined with the very British pastime of neighbourly one-upmanship.
On every street, there was at least one family determined to clap longer and louder than any other. By April, kitchen utensils and instruments entered the fray. As Scots donned kilts and played the bagpipes, people in the Home Counties clattered wooden spoons in saucepans.
After a solid ten-week run, the ceremony fizzled out as the country finally reopened, albeit briefly. An attempt to revive the ritual last month was met with muted applause after doctors and nurses told the nation to pack it in.
But as the clapping has stopped, the key workers heralded as heroes have found themselves in a familiar and unwelcome position. Hundreds are being threatened by ‘fire and rehire’ tactics that would see them signed onto contracts with worse terms and conditions than those they enjoyed before the pandemic.
A Trades Union Congress poll released last month found that almost one in ten workers in Britain have been told to reapply for their jobs on poorer terms and conditions since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The working class were almost twice as likely to have faced ‘fire and rehire’ tactics than those from the middle and upper classes, while BAME workers were equally more likely than white people to have been moved onto worse terms and conditions.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady called on the government to outlaw ‘fire and rehire’ tactics, and warned that workers in many sectors were being moved onto contracts with more insecure terms and watered down conditions.
‘Fire and rehire isn’t something new. You just have to ask workers at supermarkets who have faced these sorts of tactics in the past,’ Tim Sharp, a senior employment rights officer at the TUC, told Tribune. ‘I think what we’re seeing now is some employers using the pandemic and the economic downturn opportunistically to try and level down terms and conditions.’
Sharp warned that the use of fire and rehire schemes is ‘most egregious’ in the hospitality sector, where staff turnover is high and trade unions have a tougher time organising insecure workers. ‘There’s no doubt where unions are strong, workers are taking robust action in trying to see off these approaches,’ he added.
Unite the union members at Go North West recently voted by an overwhelming margin for strike action after accusing the bus company of attempting to bully and intimidate workers into signing new contracts.
The union claims that some workers would be more than £2,000 worse off under the new terms and conditions, as they would be expected to work longer hours for no additional pay. (Go North West told the Manchester Evening News that it was offering a £5,000 up-front payment per driver, and offering inflation-linked pay rises.)
According to Unite, bus drivers who have not signed onto the new terms have been told they could be out of work as soon as May unless they accept the new contracts before a deadline next week. ‘The shifts and the days that we’re doing now, it’s not the most family-friendly job at the moment,’ one union official told Tribune. ‘But this is going to take us ten steps back, if not more.’
GMB union members at British Gas have also taken a stand against their bosses at Centrica, the owner of the household energy provider. A little under 60 percent took part in a vote on industrial action, with 89 percent of those who took part—or more than 4,800 workers—voting in favour of strike action this month.
As Tribune reported in January, many British Gas engineers felt the company was attacking their terms and conditions amid the pandemic by trying to shift them onto inferior contracts with longer hours under threat of the sack.
‘Our business needs to change to survive and protect 20,000 jobs,’ a Centrica spokesperson said. ‘We know change is difficult, but we have offered a fair deal that has been negotiated over 300 hours with unions – where base pay and pensions are protected. 83 percent of our employees have already agreed to the new terms.’
The company also claimed that GMB was wrong to say staff would not be paid for extra hours worked—but then went on to explain that only those who achieved their ‘customer targets’ would earn more than they currently do.
In the Midlands, Aspire Living carers looking after disabled adults on the frontline of the pandemic have been told to sign up for cuts to their annual leave, sick pay, and other benefits later this year. Under terms set out by the company, staff will have weeks to accept their new terms and conditions before facing dismissal.
Unison, the union representing the care workers, have called the proposed cuts ‘cruel’ and ‘breathtaking’ in light of the hard work staff have put in over the last year. West Midlands regional organiser Ray Salmon told Tribune that staff are scared by the threat of the sack hanging over their heads.
‘A lot of people are young, minimum-wage care workers who have probably never been involved in trade unions,’ he said. ‘They were quite scared for their jobs, because we’re in a pandemic, and they didn’t know what was going to happen to them.’
Private Eye reported that long-serving staff could be more than £1,000 a year worse off as a result of increased hours and other contract changes, even though the charity has promised to increase the hourly pay of carers who sign up to the new terms.
Tribune contacted Aspire Living and Go North West for comment, but did not receive a response by time of publication.
Asked why they felt so many ‘fire and rehire’ disputes had cropped up over the past few months, union officials shared the view that companies were keen to use the pandemic as a shield for cuts they’d normally struggle to get away with, knowing full well that Westminster is unlikely to stamp out the controversial tactic.
‘I think many will see the crisis as an opportunity to attack terms and conditions,’ one Unite regional officer said. ‘If workers aren’t organised in a union, employers will see it as less of a risk.’
Tim Sharp of the TUC added that the government should be ‘really worried’ about the workforce moving toward greater insecurity, much as it did in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
‘We need to be using the pandemic to build a stronger economy with decent, secure jobs,’ he said. ‘Instead, there’s too many signs employers are opportunistically deciding to cut pay and cut conditions and move in the opposite direction. The government shouldn’t be standing by and watching this happen.’