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‘A living nightmare’: British Gas workers strike over ‘fire and rehire’ plans

Engineers say they are taking a stand for other industries as the GMB Union continues to go head-to-head with British Gas bosses in seven days of new strikes
British Gas engineer Bill Hawthorne is worried about his family life if proposed 'fire and rehire' plans go through Credit: Supplied

British Gas engineers have told of the “living nightmare” of going on strike as they return to the picket line today over ‘fire and rehire’ plans floated by bosses.

Engineers walk out for the second time today as part of seven days of industrial action. Workers will also down tools on January 22, 25, 29, 30, 31 and February 1 following the five-day strike action earlier this month in a bid to force British Gas bosses to back down.

The GMB Union action comes after plans emerged to ‘fire and rehire’ employees on worse terms and conditions which means extending the working week from 37 hours to 40 hours. Workers claim these changes will “take money off them”.

The strike action has caused disruption to British Gas services and GMB claim that the waiting list is more than 100,000-strong across the country.

It’s kind of like a fight for everyone. Because if it happens here, it’s gonna happen everywhere in society

Bill Hawthorne, a British Gas engineer from Fife who has worked for the company for five years, claims the changes to his working conditions could see him lose between £8,000 and £15,000 a year.

The 34-year-old said: “It’s a very uncertain time, it’s making me very anxious that a multimillion-pound company can do this to its workforce. 

“I think that there is a domino effect for other companies too. British Airways started this threat of hire and refire and now British Gas is flexing their muscles? We see British Gas as a company that’s very family-orientated with a flexible workforce but the new terms and conditions aren’t going to give us that.”

Bill Hawthorne Max
Max Bill Hawthorne British Gas
Bill Hawthorne's son Max, six, has been supporting his dad over strike action Credit: Supplied

Dad-of-one Hawthorne joined British Gas five years ago seeking a better work life balance after years spent running his own business. But the uncertain future created by contract changes has left him worrying about the impact on his family life, warning that the changes may mean his partner must return to work full-time as a teacher and lead to rising childcare costs for six-year-old Max.

“I would honestly love to have [British Gas chief executive] Chris O’Shea just to come out in the vehicle with us,” added Hawthorne.

“During Covid times we’re not only gas engineers, but counsellors for people. Most people we meet, we go in and they’re lonely.

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“It’s the knock-on effect on family life too that concerns me. I’ve got a six-year-old boy and at that age he needs his dad.

“I would have said up until probably August last year I’m proud to work for British Gas, I’m actually disgusted by it now.”

Dan, a British Gas engineer for 18 years from the south of England, told The Big Issue that he feels like workers are “taking a stand for everyone” in a week where reports of the 48-hour week being scrapped sparked fears over workers’ rights across the board. Dan said: “Nobody in any industry should be allowed to change workers’ contracts like this.

“It’s kind of like a fight for everyone. Because if it happens here, it’s gonna happen everywhere in society, and if we win there is a chance that British Gas will probably try again in a couple of years. It’s just a nasty way of doing business.”

Dan, a father-of-two, describes himself as the sole breadwinner of his family and warns proposed changes to his contract and the uncertainty of the strike action is taking its toll.

He added: “It is just like a living nightmare, to be honest. I haven’t had such a bad night’s sleep in my life as I did the night before the strike. But I can’t back down.

“I’m the sole breadwinner, because my wife has just trained to be a teacher so it’s basically my wages, and that’s it. Life isn’t easy at all. But I want to be able to hold my head up high.”

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Another engineer, who wished to remain anonymous, from South Wales insists that the proposed changes will mean that he is expected to work approximately 150 hours extra per year for no extra pay. And he fears the impact that will have on caring for his elderly father-in-law who suffers with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

The engineer, who has 32 years’ experience with British Gas, said: “When you join British Gas, it’s a job for life. But with this threat of fire and rehire at the moment that’s not the case.

“British Gas should recognise that the only way to end the disruption they provoked is to take fire and rehire pay cuts off the table.”

When you join British Gas, it’s a job for life. But with this threat of fire and rehire at the moment that’s not not the case

Justin Bowden, GMB national secretary, said the strike is “stepping up a gear” this week and accused British Gas bosses of “burying their heads in the sand” to avoid employees’ demands.

GMB insists that British Gas parent company Centrica is profitable and recorded a group-wide operating profit of £901m. It says the domestic heating side of the business made £229m up to June 2020 – up 27 per cent on the previous year.

But Centrica disputes this, claiming they have lost two million energy customers, one million services customers and over half their earnings over the past 10 years, including a £1.1bn unadjusted loss in 2019.

A Centrica spokesperson told The Big Issue that the strikes are “fighting against modernisation and changes that will help to protect well-paid jobs in the long-term”.

The firm said: “We’ve done everything we can with the GMB to avoid industrial action. Whilst we’ve made great progress with our other unions, sadly the GMB leadership seems intent on causing disruption to customers during the coldest time of the year, amid a global health crisis and in the middle of a national lockdown.”