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As members of the POA know, I have been campaigning to better regulate Fire and Rehire. Last month my Private Members Bill was debated in Parliament and your support was vital in helping convince hundreds of MPs to back our campaign. Thank you for your solidarity. The POA was an early supporter of the Bill and I am extremely grateful to every member.
Across Britain, trade unionists play a key role in keeping our country going. In factories, hospitals and airports, their contribution is vital. We watched with pride as cleaners, doctors and drivers were applauded for their work during the Covid crisis, but the loyalty employees have shown to bosses is not always repaid. The new sickness of Fire and Rehire is sweeping through the UK and workers are being told they will be fired unless they accept drastically reduced pay and conditions.
I introduced my Private Members Bill because Fire and Rehire is a mean, nasty practice, hurting hundreds of thousands of workers across Britain. No trade unionist should have to face it and, thankfully, it has not reached the POA yet – but we must be on our guard.
On 22 October, the Conservatives used parliamentary procedure to defeat the Bill. They did this to avoid the embarrassment of voting against it, but the end result was the same – to kill the Bill. It was the first time in memory that the government had put a three-line whip against a Private Members Bill heard on a Friday. Tory MPs were forbidden to attend their constituencies and instead had to stay in Westminster to kill the Bill. That’s how worried they were that we might win.
In the months leading to the debate, I toured the country visiting threatened workers and picket lines. I launched my campaign at Jacob Douwe Egberts in Banbury. Coffee consumption was up 40 per cent during the lockdown and JDE had made record profits, but that didn’t stop them threatening their workforce with the sack unless they accepted a cut in wages of up to £12,000. In Loughborough at the Brush, some workers learned their employment was to change via email whilst playing with their children on a Saturday night. In Kettering, Weetabix staff are equally threatened and vulnerable. At each place, the story was the same – hurt and abused workers taken for granted and treated like digits on a balance sheet.
I visited loyal workers at Clarks shoes in Somerset to show my support for their fight. I was appalled at what Clarks is trying to do. The workers at their distribution centre at Street, Somerset, are fighting against Fire and Rehire. The company is pushing employees to accept lower hourly wages, reduced sick pay and annual holidays and even the removal of 10-minute coffee breaks and complimentary hot drinks. No family should have to put up with that kind of behaviour. The actions of Clarks make me sad and determined to see better regulation.
From city to city, 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.
The culture of Fire and Rehire is killing worker confidence and returning us to an era of industrial relations belonging to the last century or well before. We need a modern approach to employment needs, not the blunt bat of Fire and Rehire.
Clarks is a key brand on the British high street, with a history dating back over a century. Their roots in their local community go even deeper. The founders of Clarks built schools, libraries and theatres for their workers. Recently the company was sold to LionRock Capital, who see the world differently.
Like most Fire and Rehire situations, the Clarks workers most impacted by these changes are those who have been employed for decades. Those who stuck with the company through thick and thin, stepping up in the last year during the challenging pandemic period.
When I spoke in Parliament in support of the #StopFireAndRehire Bill, I told Trevor’s story. He has been employed at Clarks for 16 years. Now, if forced to accept these reduced conditions, he will lose his home. He will no longer have a spare room for his children to visit and could potentially end up homeless. Trevor’s story is immensely sad, but not unique. The impact that this practice has on British workers is horrendous and it is shameful that our society allows this to happen.
Even some Conservative MPs are beginning to call for better regulation. The new breed of Fire and Rehire companies are household names – Argos, British Gas, Tesco, Sainsbury’s are all at it. These are brands that we all know, and they have all done well during the lockdown. But they are prepared to bully thousands of workers with no regard for loyalty or the fact that they created the profits for these companies.
The government has said that they believe Fire and Rehire should not be happening. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg has described it as “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 that what they are doing is wrong and they will keep on doing it until someone stops them. That is why legislation is needed and why my campaign will go on.
I want to send my solidarity to all the workers at Clarks, Weetabix, the Brush and anywhere facing Fire and Rehire. You have my commitment that the fight does not end here – we will keep going until this practice is over once and for all
* Barry Gardiner is the MP for Brent North. His Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) his Bill was debated in Parliament on Friday 22 October 2021
Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.