What surprised me, standing on the picket lines this week, was what had hurt people most. These workers had been told they would be fired and rehired, and frankly I thought that someone who was losing more than a quarter of their salary would be most upset about the money. But what so many people told me was that, most of all, it was the sense of betrayal.
Jean in Banbury explained that her family – father, husband, son and she herself – had given more than 150 years of their working lives to the company. She just could not get her head around the way that their years of loyal service had been trashed: “They’ve just treated us with contempt.” Ralph, in Loughborough, felt the same. 53 years he had been there “man and boy”. He was one of the most experienced engineers they had, sent to troubleshoot around the world. “They’ve sent us out to some dangerous places during Covid: Tanzania, Brazil, USA. Where they knew the virus was out of control. They knew we were at risk but not once did a manager phone to ask us how we were. And now this!”
Yesterday, I launched my private members bill to stop fire and rehire. There are thousands of workers across Britain who have been threatened with being fired and then rehired to do the same basic job for worse pay and conditions. These are not some small companies that nobody has ever heard of. They are some of the biggest names in British industry – British Gas, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Argos, Weetabix and Jacobs Douwe Egberts – they are all at it. And it’s wrong.
Nor are they struggling firms that will go out of business if they don’t cut their wages budget. In fact many of them have made record profits in the past year as online shopping and coffee consumption have gone through the roof. They are companies trying to return more to their shareholders in additional profit; a profit that is being taken straight out of their workers’ wage packets.
Anthea in London told me: “The management tried to make you feel grateful that you had a job at all, and that if you complained that your wage was being cut below the London Living wage [from £24,000 to £18,500 in her case] then you were being irresponsible and threatening the future of the company.” She also pointed out that the managers who were receiving bonuses for making these cuts did not seem to worry that they might be jeopardising the company by being so greedy!
You shouldn’t be able to say to someone after 30 years of loyal service: ‘You’re fired, and you can only get your job back if you accept lower pay, worse conditions and a poorer pension.’ I want Britain to be the best place in the world to work and earn a living. I want our companies to thrive and I want us to have a flexible workforce. My bill is about bringing in consultation rather than threats, representation and negotiation rather than dictatorship, and cooperation to create sustainable companies that reward workers with a fair and living wage for their skills and loyalty whilst making a fair return to investors.
This is not workplace revolution. It is workplace reasonableness. At the moment, far too many companies have swapped reasonableness for greed. The first reading of my bill was on the anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox. I am pleased that MPs from every party have offered to support the legislation and I have said to the government that I am willing to work with it to pass a bill that helps make Britain the best place to be employed.
In the Commons we spend a lot of time disagreeing, but there are times when we can all share a common goal. This should be one of those times. My bill will improve cooperation, reduce industrial strife and promote best practice. It’s wonderful that so many good employers and business leaders condemn fire and rehire. My bill is not only morally right but in the best interests of sustainable business.