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Apsana Begum: Why I’m Voting to Outlaw Fire and Rehire

1 in 10 workers in Britain have been threatened with losing their jobs, terms and conditions through fire and rehire – today's Bill is an opportunity to end that assault for good.

Credit: Mark Kerrison / Getty Images

Over the last year, workers in this country have been subject to a spate of attacks from employers, many of them united in their use of the same tactic: fire and rehire. Research from the TUC in January found that nearly one in ten workers had been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions since the country’s first Covid lockdown—or face the sack.

In the face of this assault, workers have put up valiant resistance. This spring saw British Gas engineers and Go North West bus drivers each spending months out on strike, fighting against their employers’ attempts to make them sign contracts with vastly inferior terms and conditions. Go North West was eventually forced into a U-turn, but hundreds of British Gas engineers lost their jobs.

It’s important to note that the employers using ‘fire and rehire’ tactics exist in a range of industries—even in the public sector. In my local area, I’ve been part of a campaign against ‘fire and rehire’ actions taken by our council.

Despite the pandemic, local council workers, many of whom were women of BAME backgrounds, were fired and then rehired on less favourable terms under the guise of what was called ‘Tower Rewards’. After the Easter Holidays in 2020, staff returning to their vital work found themselves sacked and forced onto new worsened conditions—conditions that were overwhelmingly rejected in local ballots by the National Education Union (NEU) and Unison.

As a result of industrial organising and a powerful local campaign, the actual date of the ‘firing and rehiring’ was pushed back to July 2020— but that still meant essential workers would be affected just weeks after the first lockdown regime was relaxed.

Since then, I have continued to stand in solidarity with all workers challenging this indefensible injustice. ‘Fire and rehire’ is not just an attack on the rights and pay of workers; it is an exposure of the systemic failures of the law around worker protections. In particular, BAME workers—who continue to face a disproportionate burden working in insecure jobs, with fewer rights at work and an ongoing pay gap—have been faced with ‘fire and rehire’ attacks at nearly twice the rate of their white counterparts.

‘Fire and rehire’ is, of course, in many ways a new name for an old practice. For now, that practice is not technically unlawful, but I agree with Unite, the TUC, and others across the trade union movement in believing that it’s a loophole, and flies against the spirit of the law.

As Rebecca Long Bailey has written previously in Tribune, if the government wanted to put this assault to an end, it wouldn’t take much. The principle that everyone has rights at work, which are guaranteed by law, is of basic and fundamental importance, and this importance has grown as the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt by businesses and employers across the board, leading some to explore the ways in which they can cut employment costs.

In simple terms, employment contracts should be no different from any other contract, and employers should not change the terms without the agreement of the employee. That is why Barry Gardiner’s Private Members’ Bill, which seeks to put an end to this practice, is absolutely crucial, and has my wholehearted support.

As well as outlawing fire and rehire, this Bill also seeks to provide additional legal protections by making it easier and quicker for industrial action to be taken in cases of fire and rehire. Such a provision is timely, as we know that there is a real sense of dissatisfaction—and even despair—in workplaces across Tory Britain. The victories of workers like the Go North West bus drivers make it clear that trade unionism is at the heart of achieving worker power and workplace justice.

Despite working longer hours than most EU countries, millions of workers in this country cannot afford to make ends meet. In-work poverty is at unacceptable levels. According to the TUC, 40 percent of those claiming Universal Credit—over two million people, who have now been hit by the government’s brutal slash—are in work.

This reality is not just the result of Covid. Successive governments have run down our communities and continue to tear away our rights. These ideologues are determined to create a cynical dog-eat-dog world, in which only the rich can flourish; meanwhile, people across Britain suffer through patchy pandemic support measures that condemn them to injustice and hardship. This is the context in which ‘fire and rehire’ tactics are currently being adopted.

A thriving and just economy cannot be created without the full involvement and empowerment of its workforce. Fire and rehire has no place in this country, and the government would do well to realise it: when the rights of workers are respected, and when those workers are able to come together to build their power, everyone is better off.