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Opinion

Barry Gardiner: Why legislation is needed to crack down on fire and rehire

The Labour MP has launched a private member’s bill to ban fire and rehire. He tells The Big Issue why businesses must not put workers’ rights at risk

On June 14 I launched my private members’ bill to stop the practice of fire and rehire. It is wrong that workers are being bullied in this way – sacked, and told they will only be re-employed to do the same basic job if they accept less money and poorer conditions. It is an issue that affects every constituency, every industry – a social evil that is afflicting hundreds of thousands of families. As if the insecurity of the pandemic were not enough companies are now threatening people with the sack so they can pay them less.

These companies are household names, some of the biggest in British industry; Tesco, Argos, Sainsbury’s, Weetabix, British Gas; these are brands that we all know, and they have all done exceedingly well during the lockdown. But they are prepared to put thousands of workers and their families out on their ear – no regard for loyalty, or for being some of the frontline key workers during the pandemic who actually created the profits for these companies. Fire and rehire isn’t right and shouldn’t be happening in Britain today, but it is.

I launched my campaign at Jacob Douwe Egberts in Banbury. Coffee consumption was up 40 per cent during the lockdown and Jacobs Douwe Egbert made record profits, but that didn’t stop them threatening their workforce in Banbury with the sack unless they accepted a cut in wages of up to £12,000. No family should have to put up with that. I met hundreds of workers who told me what that loss of earnings meant for them: How do you pay your rent or your mortgage with a cut like that? How do you support your family? Every pound cut, is a pound less to pay your rent, to pay your mortgage and the fear of eviction or repossession is very real.

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Standing on the picket line last week at JDE in Banbury and in Ashby de la Zouche at the Brush Traction head office, I was told how the companies used to be great places to work. One woman told me her family had given over 150 years of service to the company. At Brush one man had started work at 15 and had been there 53 years. He was now a senior engineer. These people could not believe that after all the loyal service they had given, they were being treated this way. But in each case new management had come in and people who had felt their workplace was an extension of their family now felt devalued, disrespected and victimised. These are not islolated cases. More and more employers are treating their workers as digits on a balance sheet – as expendable and interchangeable units – they have lost sight of the human beings who deserve respect, dignity and decency.

There is unforgivable burden of stress being put on these workers. They dread the next bill coming through the door, unable to sleep at night, wondering how to put food on the table. It is shameful.

The government has said that they believe fire and rehire should not be happening. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg has described fire and rehire “wrong” and a “bad practice” while business minister Paul Scully has branded it as “bully-boy tactics”. But they are not prepared to legislate to stop it. They say they will issue expanded guidelines. But the companies who are doing this don’t need more guidelines, they know what they are doing is wrong and they will keep on doing it unless someone stops them. That is why legislation is needed.

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Despite the government’s reluctance to pass primary legislation my bill already has support from over 100 MPs from every single party in the House of Commons – including a handful of Conservative MPs. I believe that with enough public support we can persuade the government to do a U-turn just like they did with free school meals. And I am looking forward to criss-crossing the country, speaking with people to make that happen. When there is such a clear injustice, it must be possible for MPs to work together towards a common goal. I take it as a good omen that the first reading of my bill was on the anniversary of the murder of my former colleague Jo Cox. “We have more in common than divides us” was her motto.

Barry Gardiner is the MP for Brent North. His Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill is currently going through parliament

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