It’s Time to Outlaw Fire and Rehire

The government has claimed to stand against fire and rehire practices, which threaten 1 in 10 workers across Britain – but these words will ring hollow unless they take action in today's Queen's Speech.

In late March of this year, an MP stood up in Parliament and warned that ‘employers threatening to fire and rehire’ their workers as a negotiating tactic ‘are doing something that is wrong’, it being what ‘decent employers do not do’.

This MP politely noted that companies ‘should know better than to behave in this way.’ Don’t choke when I tell you that it was Jacob Rees-Mogg who, for once in his lifetime, was attempting to speak for the nation when uttering these words. The man is no new convert to the cause of the workers, but just the most recent minister to condemn employers using fire and rehire tactics to undermine the pay and conditions of their employees.

Joining him was minister Paul Scully, who said that the government ‘will not kick this into the long grass’ and promised that the Tories ‘will not allow’ bosses to use ‘bully boy tactics’ against workers. Are these admissions a genuine expression of outrage at the latest abuse of this country’s workers, who are still the easiest, quickest, and cheapest to sack in Europe, or is it merely lip service? Rest assured, Unite will be putting that to the test.

Fire and rehire is tearing through our workplaces like a disease. At the time of writing, it’s estimated that at least one in ten workers are facing the reality of it, as unscrupulous bosses use the pandemic as an excuse to shred hard-won pay, and terms and conditions of their workforce. The recent fire and rehire notice from coffee manufacturer Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE) is just the most recent despicable, and all too predictable, attack on our hard-working members.

As coffee drinking boomed by an estimated 40 per cent over the last year, these 300 mostly women workers grafted tirelessly to keep a locked-down, tired, and thirsty nation supplied with the stuff throughout the pandemic. As a result, the company enjoyed a tidy 9 per cent organic growth — a new record for them. And what thanks did their staff in Banbury receive for this profit boom? Squalid threats of dismissal, alongside the closure of their final salary pension scheme.

It’s unsurprising that when Unite members speak to both Tory and Labour voters about fire and rehire, they instinctively recoil. Although the terminology has yet to spread beyond our movement, the actions of British Airways, British Gas, Go North West, and JDE speak louder than political slogans — and it doesn’t sit well. Neither is there any faith in the will of the boardroom to sort out these problems or behave with decency.

Even diehard Tory voters say that there has to be a level playing field— or else hard-nosed, deep-pocketed CEOs will carry on doing as they like, turning up the playing field, laying waste to long-established contracts, and mistreating workers with no fear of the consequences. Unite will never tolerate this, and we won’t hesitate to act robustly.

Employers like JDE and Go North West would do well to remember that we’ve stood up to much bigger bullies in the past and won. But while we have not let a single employer get away with fire and rehire without an almighty fight, the odds are still stacked against working people. I dread to think what is happening in parts of the economy where trade unions are not firmly present.

That’s why we are going into workplaces to expose the latest club in the rogues’ bag. We’ll be appealing to the devolved nations to do all in their power to defend their people from this disgraceful behaviour, and metro mayors will be urged to show fire and rehire businesses the door.

The healthy profit margins make it clear that fire and rehire is not about corporate need. It is not a response to pandemic trading. There’s nothing new here. This is about good old-fashioned greed — here, the most opportunistic behaviour of the capitalist class is aided by flimsy laws to legally rob workers in a fearful and uncertain time.

So I did allow myself a wry chuckle when the leader of the House of Commons added: ‘I would say to my capitalist friends, behave well as a business and your business will do better.’ Rees-Mogg, the honourable member for the Victorian era, is wasting his breath with these new dark, satanic employers.

But polite appeals from Westminster rarely register in the global boardrooms of the City or in the shareholder chambers of Qatar. It will be proper change, not hollow words, that halts corporations alighting on Britain as the safest place to skim workers’ wages with only the meekest of mumbles coming from within the corridors of power. That change could be introduced today during the Queen’s Speech – if the government had the will.

Our mission now is to unite working people to say in the strongest possible terms ‘no more’. We plan to make fire and rehire part of the national conversation, and in doing so to expose this repugnant practice for what it is.