How the Weetabix Workers Are Fighting ‘Fire and Rehire’

Despite making millions in pandemic profits, Weetabix is trying to force its engineers to accept longer hours and almost £5,000 less per year in pay – just the latest example of the corporate war on workers.

Weetabix workers in Corby and Burton Latimer are set to double their planned strike action from two days a week to four. Credit: Unite

Michael*, an engineer for Weetabix, has worked at the company’s Burton Latimer factory in Northamptonshire for the past 17 years. Through all that time, he explains, he’s never had to resort to strike action—until now.

In a bid to cut costs, the company is attempting to carry out what Unite is calling a ‘fire and rehire’ programme with the workforce. Fire and rehire usually sees employees dismissed with the plans to hire them back on new, often worse, contract terms, or forced to accept new terms and conditions outright. If workers refuse, they’re let go.

Michael, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is one of dozens of workers out on strike, all members of the UK’s largest union, Unite. As well as the Burton Latimer factory, engineers from the factory in Corby are also joining the action, and on Monday 25 October solidarity protests were staged in supermarkets across the country.

‘The company is trying to force unfair changes to our terms and conditions,’ he says. ‘Some members are losing £4,800 in the form of an agreed supplement being withdrawn, while others, including myself, are being forced to swap from a 38-hour week to a 42-hour week, which includes weekends and bank holidays, for an extra £13 a week.’ Workers are also having to work in smaller teams, he adds, despite an increased workload.

The move comes despite Weetabix enjoying success during the worst of the pandemic: the company saw a jump of 18.5 percent in profits, to $112.3 million—and a total revenue turnover of $440 million—between March and November 2020. With this in mind, Michael tells Tribune that he feels like Weetabix is doing this simply ‘because they can’. According to Michael, the company’s excuse was that ‘if [we] want to move forward for a further 88 years, [we] have to make changes.’

Strike action was meant to start in June but halted to allow for negotiations with the company which saw Weetabix put forward new proposals, which 82 percent of workers rejected in a consultative ballot. Then, on 21 September, Michael and his colleagues staged their first 48-hour strike, which was due to be followed by weekly reoccurrences until the last on the 30 November. The two-day strike pattern is now reportedly due to increase to four days per week. Around five weeks into the dispute, no middle ground has yet been found.

In a statement, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham says: ‘Weetabix believes it can steamroll a loyal and hardworking staff into accepting worse wages, pensions and conditions by threatening them with the sack. Weetabix’s management must be learning this kind of ‘take it or leave it’ industrial relations from their American owners. Unite won’t accept that.’

Unite has been campaigning hard against fire and rehire in recent months, including at Weetabix, in light of the process becoming rampant since the start of the pandemic last spring. According to a survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), nearly one in 10 workers have been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions or face being fired. That figure jumps to 15 percent for BME workers, and 18 percent for younger workers aged 18-24.

Some examples have been particularly high-profile. Earlier this year, British Gas dismissed almost a thousand workers following three months of strike action against another fire and rehire scheme. Another three-month-long strike of some 500 drivers in Manchester against Go North West’s attempt to employ fire and rehire tactics ended the company being forced to back down, and drivers offered a wage increase and protections for sick pay. Weetabix is another case in what is already a long list.

Fire and rehire is banned in Spain, France, and Ireland, and according to a poll taken on behalf of Unite in spring, 70 percent of the British public is in favour of making the practice illegal here, too. Unite is currently calling for an amendment to the UK’s existing employment legislation to outlaw fire and rehire. Writing for Tribune earlier this year, MP Rebecca Long-Bailey made a very simple case for amending the law:

‘All you would need to do is amend the Employment Rights Act to provide that dismissal to achieve a reduction in an employee’s pay, benefits, or conditions of employment would be unfair; then amend it further to make it unfair to dismiss an employee for economic or organisational reasons that are not necessary to the survival of the business, and define a burden of proof.’

Until that time comes, though, workers continue to be forced to strike to demand even the most basic rights. ‘I am very proud to work for Weetabix, and bitterly regret that we had to resort to industrial action and the possible damage to the brand,’ says Michael. ‘But sometimes, enough is enough!’

A spokesperson for Weetabix Food Company gave a statement to Tribune:

‘This situation concerns the standardisation of existing shift patterns with our engineers and other manufacturing teams, which is permitted under existing terms of employment. It is unfair and inaccurate to call this rehiring or to suggest that we are considering dismissal. This standardisation of shift patterns will mean an increase in take-home pay, and while the voluntary choice of moving to a day shift does not include the same level of shift premium for obvious reasons, the proposal is very much in line with other similar businesses.’