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Employment

British Gas engineers face mass sacking in fire and rehire row

Engineers who refuse to sign up to ‘fire and rehire’ plans will be dismissed on April 14 as mass sackings leave ‘van graveyard’

fire and rehire British Gas strike

Engineers gathered at Scottish Gas' Uddingston HQ on the 43rd day of strikes against fire and rehire. Image credit: Bill Hawthorne

British Gas engineers are facing mass sackings this week after the long-running dispute over ‘fire and rehire’ plans comes to a head.

Engineers will walk out for the 43rd time since January on Wednesday to coincide with the deadline to sign up to new terms which the GMB union argue will see workers work three extra hours a week, amounting to a 15 per cent pay cut.

Staff face the sack for failing to sign and scores of workers have already lost their job this week. The recognisable British Gas vans sporting company livery are mounting up in a “gas van graveyard” according to one union official.

Martin Glover, 36, from Kent, was dismissed after 16 years and told The Big Issue he had planned to retire at the firm – the third generation of his family to do so.

“A lot of my friends have already left and my whole apprentice year is leaving. It is the end of an era,” Glover told The Big Issue. “Most people have had enough and from a mental health standpoint they want to get out.

“I just want to get away from British Gas now. I thought I’d be here until the end of my career but how they have treated their staff is unforgivable in my eyes.”

Glover will move on to a new job with a rival gas supplier but many engineers have taken to social media to share their anger as they lose their jobs.

One engineer said: “Van going back. A sad day as ultimately the bully has won. Do not regret my decision for one second and can’t wait to get out.”

Another added: “So today I handed my blue van after 19 years’ loyal service. It’s not how I wanted my time at British Gas to end, but because I won’t sign an inferior contract of employment I was given notice so as one chapter closes a new and exciting chapter awaits.”

Other engineers have chosen to sign the contract, including Bill Hawthorne who told The Big Issue at the start of the strike action in January that he was “disgusted” by the firm.

The 34-year-old engineer from Fife said he cannot see a long-term future at the firm as he waits to see how the changes to working conditions affect his life. Hawthorne warned tweaked rotas, giving six weeks’ notice rather than six months, has left him with a childcare headache.

“I don’t think I’m going to be better off, certainly with family time, I’ll have to give it six months to a year but I don’t think I have any intention of staying with British Gas long-term if it’s as bad as what people are going to say it’s like,” said Hawthorne.

“The government has let this happen with big business. If British Gas can do it, why can’t others? We’ve always said we’re not looking for a pay rise and if the company was on its knees then we would have taken a cut. But they are being greedy in my opinion and we are left out high and dry. It’s just not fair.”

I think it’s a bit too late for us now but hopefully what we have done will help other people who will be going through the same situation

While the mass sackings are the end of the road for some engineers, Justin Bowden, the GMB regional secretary, has vowed to continue with strike action

Bowden warned: “This dispute will continue and become an official national lockout dispute. There will be more strikes and action short of strikes”.

There shows no sign of a break in the deadlock. A spokesperson for Centrica, parent company of British Gas, told The Big Issue GMB’s allegations of a pay cut were “simply not true” and that the changes were necessary to “modernise the way we work”.

The statement read: “It’s now time for all parties to move forward and continue the turnaround of Centrica for our customers and our colleagues’ benefit.”

British Gas are not the only firm to face industrial action over ‘fire and rehire’ plans. British Airways (BA) and trade union Unite have also been in dispute through the pandemic before BA agreed to take the plans off the table in a January agreement.

Professor Nick Bacon, of City, University of London’s Business School, told The Big Issue firing staff in the hope of hiring them back on worse terms threatened the quality of customer service for firms that rely on it.

“Customer service requires committed and engaged employees and if you are going to change their contracts you lose that engagement and commitment, that leaves you with a lot of ground to build up in terms of customer service,” said Professor Bacon.

“It’s a dangerous game those organisations are playing, they are concentrating on shorter gains rather than long-term labour hoarding and treating their employees well.”

British Gas engineer Glover also warned British Gas engineers’ fight could have wider ramifications for workers in other sectors.

As he prepared to leave his job this week, he told The Big Issue: “Hopefully our strikes have brought fire and rehire to the public’s awareness. I think it’s a bit too late for us now but hopefully what we have done will help other people who will be going through the same situation.”

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