Employment

BT workers vote for first national call centre strike in UK history

The decision comes less than a week after The Big Issue reported that a “food bank” was set up in a BT call centre for its own staff to use.

CWU members protest low pay and government inaction on the cost of living crisis at a rally in London earlier this month. Image: Evie Breese / The Big Issue

Workers at BT and Openreach have voted to strike as they grapple with the cost of living crisis while the company reports eye-watering profits. 

A huge 91.5 per cent of British Telecom workers and 95.8 per cent of employees at Openreach voted for strike action, resulting in what will be the first national call centre walkout in UK history.

“We believe this is the first time in UK history that call centre workers across multiple site across the United Kingdom have voted to strike…. without these workers you wouldn’t have seen the home working revolution that took place (during the pandemic),” said Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, announcing the result.

“Call centre workers are some of the most casualised and isolated workforces in this country. They are notoriously difficult to organise, and the unprecedented vote they have taken today demonstrates the anger so many people feel in this country today,” he continued.

Despite 95 per cent of EE workers voting to strike, the legal threshold of 50 per cent voter turnout was not reached so industrial action will not go ahead.

The news comes less than a week after The Big Issue revealed a BT run call centre in North Tyneside had set up a “food bank” for its own staff, to use when their pay won’t stretch to the end of the month. 

Though it was set up by colleagues at the Newcastle call centre as a kind gesture, some employees pointed out that it normalises in-work poverty. BT denied the initiate is a food bank, saying that the “CommunitEE pantry” is for “colleagues who don’t have time to visit the supermarket.”

BT Group posted annual profits of £1.3billion. Last year, BT Group chief executive Philip Jansen’s pay was 86 times what BT’s average worker was paid, and 97 times that of its lower paid staff.

BT imposed a flat rate pay rise of £1,500 in April for its lowest-paid staff, saying this worked out as a pay rise of between 3 and 8 per cent. But this was rejected by the CWU which had been pushing for a 10 per cent pay rise in the face of rising inflation, hitting 9.1 per cent in May.

The minimum wage went up on April 1, meaning that those earning salaries of around £20,000 needed a pay rise to stop their hourly rate falling below the legal minimum. 

The CWU represents about 40,000 of BT Group’s 100,000 employees.

A BT employee who said they would be voting for strike action told The Big Issue last week: “Nobody is willingly looking forward to a strike day because we’re hoping BT will listen and will come back to the table and negotiate something in the middle that will help us feel like we’re recognised.”

“We got boasts at the end of the year from the company saying how well they’d done and that they’re going to invest in our future, but they won’t invest in us.”

During the pandemic, having a stable internet connection became crucial to millions of people who were forced to work from home, and for children to continue their education from home. 

“They’ve been winning off the work that we’ve done… but we haven’t had an above inflation pay rise, and yet the company has done absolutely fantastic,” the worker continued. 

BT announced in January that its customers would see their broadband and phone bills rise by more than 9 per cent, following a “dramatic increase” in data usage over the last few years. For the majority of customers, that has equalled an average of £3.50 extra each month. 

The company also recently announced it will support its customers who are struggling to pay their bills by offering them the option to switch to cheaper packages or manageable payment plans.

The communications giant  has also committed to working with the government to raise awareness of low-cost products to customers claiming universal credit.

The Post Office is also facing strike action after the CWU announced its members will walk over pay on July 11. This will be the third strike by Post Office workers this year.

A BT Group spokesperson said: “BT Group awarded its highest pay rise for frontline colleagues in more than 20 years – an average 5 per cent increase and up to 8 per cent for those on the lowest salaries. At the same time, we’re in the middle of a once-in-a-generation investment programme to upgrade the country’s broadband and mobile networks.

“These investments are vital for the benefit of our millions of customers and for the UK economy. Above all, they are central to the success of this business – and its colleagues – now and in the future.

“Our job is to balance the competing demands of BT Group’s stakeholders and that requires careful management, especially in a challenging economic environment. The result of the CWU’s ballot is a disappointment but we will work to keep our customers and the country connected.”

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