‘If you do well, you’ll have a job for life,’ so the saying goes. It’s been said by generations of families when apprentices have started with British Gas – a company that has roots 200 years deep, and it’s an adage that rang true until very recently.
Today is the 35th day of industrial action against British Gas over their ‘fire and rehire’ plans. It’s unlikely that the company expected our resolve to be this strong – but what we’ve stood for, and what we’ve fought against, is something to be proud of. Threatening us all with the sack meant this was never a fair fight.
The wheels of fire and rehire began turning in summer 2020, despite the heating department of the business turning a profit of £229 million in the first half of that year. The newly-installed CEO of Centrica – the parent company of British Gas – Chris O’Shea raised the prospect of using fire and rehire as a last resort. The most common argument deployed for this drastic measure was that the company needs to change to survive, pretty standard fare for attacking workers’ conditions.
But these were not workers who had just taken up their jobs yesterday. It’s important to stress the depth of service within British Gas. I’ve been with the company for nearly 10 years now – and I am still the joint-newest member of my local team. Countless engineers would be able to say that they joined after leaving school and worked for the company all the way to retirement.
One look at the LinkedIn of our CEO shows that he has worked for six companies in 20 years. Engineers who have given their working lives to the business have a healthy sense of reservation about someone who is unlikely to hang around to see the long-term damage wrought by fire and rehire.
Sensing that accepting exorbitant bonuses like his predecessor wouldn’t go down well with the staff that he was firing, O’Shea has foregone his bonus. Still, his salary is 6 times that of the average CEO, and 20 times that of an engineer.
O’Shea was pulled in front of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee in February where, during a rough cross-examination, some damning truths came to light. Centrica, it turned out, had accepted £27 million in taxpayers’ money from the Government’s Job Retention Scheme while it was hatching a plot to fire and rehire its workforce; a workforce that was risking its lives entering the homes of Covid-positive customers.
The committee also found that despite having a good relationship for years with the largest union in British Gas – the GMB – they saw fit to plough ahead with fire and rehire plans early on in ‘negotiations’ as it was felt that a settlement could not be reached. Corporate lawyers were blamed for this breakdown in trust.
The Commons Committee summarily condemned the practice of fire and rehire and recommended that the law be changed to protect workers. Given the Conservative majority in Westminster, it remains to be seen whether this will happen. In any case, it will be too late for us.
Frustration has been felt that a 7,000-strong workforce taking a stand against fire and rehire hasn’t made the mainstream media headlines as much as it should. When our strike has made the news, we’ve been represented diligently by GMB Senior Organiser Hazel Nolan, who has argued our case very capably. But she has often been alone – British Gas repeatedly refused to put up spokespeople to defend themselves, likely surmising that they would be defending the indefensible. And the media has not done its job in challenging them.
Trust with the company has almost entirely evaporated during this dispute. Even among those who have already resigned themselves to the new contract, there’s unhappiness – no one wants to work more hours, under more scrutiny, with fewer holidays. In a GMB survey this week it was revealed that 94% of workers believe the new job allocation times are unsafe and fewer than 10% of the workforce are confident they will be with the company this time next year.
This situation was avoidable. The previous CEO squandered £200 million on consultancy firms over his tumultuous reign. O’Shea waxed lyrical in a recent interview with the Financial Times about putting a stop to this once he got his feet under the desk. He neglected to mention that he was Chief Financial Officer during that time.
A revised offer was proposed this month. The largest affected business unit – Service and Repair – returned a resounding rejection of the new deal: 79% voted against. When the first deal was rejected in December, it was suggested that the GMB turned us against the company. When the second deal was voted down, it was stated paradoxically by the company that the neutral stance taken by the union resulted in a majority vote against the deal.
It’s no wonder that the workforce is sceptical given the recent history. We’ve seen our colleagues take leave because of stress; we’ve witnessed our friends exit the company because of its direction; and we’ve looked on as shares have plummeted from an all-time high in 2013 to a 25-year low today, worth 1/7th of their previous value. No-one blames the engineers for this, yet we’re the ones taking the brunt of the downturn.
Engineers have until 25 March to decide if they will sign the contract to receive what is being called ‘protected terms’ – the company will pay engineers £2,000 in April and a further £2,540 in January 2022 for the uplift in average hours from 37 per week to 40. This is a clever way of appearing to compensate us while actually slashing our hourly rate.
After 2022, we will we be working longer days for the same pay, but there will be no further lump sums to soften the blow. We are also subject to a three-year pay freeze. Despite the company heralding the new deal as protecting salaries, it is in effect a pay cut on two fronts when taking inflation into account. Those who do not sign by the 25th can still sign the new contract but won’t receive any additional payment for their extra labour.
On 29 March, those who have not signed will be served their notice. The business is keeping their cards close to their chest about what will happen after March. Those who are fired and choose not to sign another contract have no idea if they will be working their notice period – up to 12 weeks, dependent on length of service – or will be paid payment in lieu of notice.
The reason given for this ambiguity is operational demand. The reality is that the company has bitten off more than it can chew with this dispute. Management have only themselves to blame though, they have driven engineers away.
Whatever the outcome of the strike, it is clear that many workers who rarely work together have found a collective consciousness – and they did it through trade unionism. There is no shopfloor for British Gas engineers, and in-person team meetings haven’t been held since the pandemic began. But catchy social media hashtags like #WeDidntStartTheFire, organised picket lines and near-weekly webinars have been keeping morale up. Our union is not stepping back from the fight.
The anger from customers in homes and on social media is deafening. Customers in solidarity with workers have been leaving in droves. Councils have threatened to pull their multimillion-pound contracts if the company doesn’t back down.
But our dispute has wider implications for the rights of workers, too. We are the test case for ‘fire and rehire’ across the country. If we lose, others will be dragged into the fight. A contract will mean nothing in the British workplace.
British Gas must decide quickly if this is how the company wants to be known. For the continued existence of a company that has already suffered in its reputation, we hope they come to their senses and drop their plans.
As ever, your support for our cause is appreciated.