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JUST when we should be building a fairer society out of the Covid crisis, the Tories and unscrupulous bosses are working hand in glove to intimidate workers across the economy into accepting worse pay and conditions.
Fire and rehire is the latest in a long line of Tory tools used to drive down the pay and conditions of workers.
Exploiting gaps in the law, workers are told to sign away their current pay and conditions — or be sacked.
It’s a form of legalised robbery. The same work is expected to be done — and sometimes even more work — for less pay, lower pensions and worse conditions.
The aim is simple: to use the cover of the pandemic to transfer wealth from wages to profits.
Firms hope to get away with this by exploiting workers’ insecurity and fears at a time of deep crisis to force them to accept whatever is put in front of them.
Take one current example: around 400 bus drivers in Unite the Union are in their ninth week of strikes against Go North West attempts to force workers to work 130 hours of unpaid work per year, resulting in drivers being £2,500 a year worse off.
Those workers kept working throughout the pandemic, risking their health and that of their families.
Yet Go North West wants to slash the existing sick pay entitlement for workers with over five years’ service.
This is no one-off. I have been on GMB picket lines recently with British Gas engineers in my own area facing the sack if they refused to accept contract changes equating to a 15 per cent pay cut.
TUC research found that one in 10 workers has been threatened with fire and rehire during the pandemic. The low-paid, the young and black communities have been most affected.
With unemployment expected to grow as furlough ends, bullying bosses will seek to further exploit fire and rehire to drive down conditions even further — unless the law is changed.
Those who haven’t been threatened so far shouldn’t for a minute believe that this doesn’t affect them.
Fire and rehire is the new Tory blueprint for the whole economy. The aim is to drag down everyone’s terms and conditions in a race to the bottom. Bosses and shareholders will gain once again on the backs of their workers.
It’s Thatcherism on steroids. Of course, Boris Johnson, who likes to speak out of both sides of his mouth, claims he’s against this practice and called it unacceptable.
But his words are cheap. The Prime Minister has the power to act but is refusing to ban this practice.
Earlier this year, the Tories abstained on a Labour motion that would have banned fire and rehire, while a government-commissioned report on the extent of fire and rehire was handed over to ministers in February.
Despite numerous pledges to release this report and respond to it, the government is still dragging its feet.
If only the Tories were as quick in banning fire and rehire issues as they are in responding to WhatsApp messages from their corporate sponsors.
The truth is the government could end this disgraceful practice overnight. If the Prime Minister brought the legislation today Labour would back it.
With a stroke of a pen this threat would be gone. Other countries, including Spain and Ireland, have already banned fire and rehire.
Yet this week there was a debate in Parliament on fire and rehire and not a single back-bench Tory MP chose to participate in the debate.
The Tory minister answering questions squirmed as he explained that there was other important business going on.
Of course, for the Tories, anything is more important than protecting workers’ rights.
Despite misleading Tory claims that this practice is only carried out as a last resort by companies on their knees, a recent Observer investigation of firms using fire and rehire found that 70 per cent are making a profit.
British Gas reported profits of £80 million in its most recent update but has forced thousands of workers onto worse conditions.
Half of the firms in the Observer report even received government support during the pandemic.
Surely getting government economic support should be contingent on refusing to sack workers or drive down wages?
As a trade union lawyer before I became an MP, I saw the immense human suffering and loss of dignity of those subjected to fire and rehire.
But it is now being carried out on an industrial scale. So our fightback must be on an industrial scale too.
Unite the Union this week launched a campaign to force the government to introduce a simple amendment to existing employment legislation outlawing fire and rehire.
Our movement needs to unite over this. We should support every single worker forced to take action against these bully-boy tactics and we need to build the biggest campaign possible to force this Tory government to ban this shameful practice.
Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East.
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