Labour MP Barry Gardiner’s private member’s bill to prevent firms from sacking workers to hire them back on worse terms had its second reading in the House of Commons on Friday – the second of five stages the bill must pass in the house to make it into law.
Fire and rehire has become a widespread issue during the pandemic with major firms including British Gas, Weetabix, Sainbury’s and British Airways all facing accusations of using the tactics to drive down workers pay and conditions in the past year.
As MPs got their first chance to debate the bill in parliament, Gardiner said politicians “can end this misery and must” but the government imposed a three-line whip to instruct Conservative MPs to vote against it.
Speaking for almost an hour in his opening speech, Gardiner said: “This bill is about making Britain the best place to work. This bill is about levelling up. His bill is about treating people fairly.
“Fire and rehire is happening all over our country. We must act. Profitable companies are doing this to hard-working people.
“The human cost of these tactics is acknowledged by everyone and every party in this house.”
Gardiner’s bill – titled Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill – attempts to alter existing legislation to make it easier for workers and employers to negotiate terms without the threat of dismissal.
The Brent North MP said his bill does not attempt to ban the practice entirely – a claim disputed by the Conservatives – citing the need for firms to restructure when they are at risk of collapse. Instead the legislation would “enshrine good practice into law and penalise bad practice”, Gardiner said.
Fire and rehire tactics have been widely condemned across the political spectrum.
Ahead of the debate, Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “Fire and rehire is an appalling tactic to get around the law and cheat working people out of the pay and conditions that they have earned through their hard work.
“Whether it is supporting fire and rehire, hiking their taxes or cutting their universal credit Conservative ministers are making working people pay the price for the government’s failures.”
The use of fire and rehire has been repeatedly slammed by government ministers too. Business minister Paul Scully has called fire and rehire “bully-boy tactics” while prime minister Boris Johnson has also described the practice as “unacceptable”.
Gardiner quoted Jacob Rees-Mogg in his bid to show that legislation is needed to tackle the issue but expressed his dismay at the government’s opposition to the bill.
Gardiner said: “To quote the leader of the house: All companies operate best when their employees are operating with enthusiasm and these kind of tactics are very bad for morale in business. And as he famously said: “Fire and rehire is no way to do capitalism”.
He added: “The tactic of filibustering to talk the bill out is cowardly
“Given all that ministers have said denigrating the practice of fire and rehire, it is remarkable that the government has imposed a three-line whip against it today. In politics it’s rare to find something that absolutely everyone agrees on.
“Everyone from Len McCluskey to the prime minister himself, everyone agrees that fire and rehire is wrong so why is the government determined to block this bill?”
In response, Conservative MP Laura Farris told Gardiner that there is disagreement on how fire and rehire is tackled.
Currently the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) advises employers that dismissing employees to force a change in contract should be used as a “last resort”.
But after embarking on a “fact-finding exercise” into fire and rehire in June ACAS warned the practice could be used more frequently once Covid support schemes ended.
“I maintain a view that this bill actually poses risk for workers’ rights. It exacerbates one of the deepest problems in industrial relations that has come about through this practice,” said Farris.
She added: “We on this side of the house perhaps depart from you [Gardiner] in that we think there is strength and flexibility in existing employment law but we also think it could do with being robustly reinforced with financial penalties. We take this issue as seriously as you do and I am confident that we will deliver for workers rights.”
While private member’s bills are unlikely to make it into law without the backing of the government, Gardiner’s bill retains support from trade unions.
Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, which has intervened in disputes at Jacob Douwe Egberts and Go North West this year, said: “Workers want action, not more empty words. The prime minister has talked a good game on this issue. Now it is time for him to step up, to act and show workers that he means what he says.”
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