In stark contrast to the government’s apparent ambitions to “level up” much of the country, many people are experiencing a levelling down at the hands of opportunistic bosses.
And workers at British Gas are currently taking industrial action against an attempt by bosses to unilaterally cut their pay and conditions.
Yet, at the very time the government should be looking at ways of protecting workers from these illegitimate tactics, it is instead considering how to water down their rights even further.
Fire-and-rehire is widespread
A poll published by the TUC today reveals that nearly one in 10 (9%) workers have been told to re-apply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions since the first lockdown in March.
Nearly a fifth of 18-24 year-olds say their employer has tried to re-hire them on inferior terms during the pandemic.
And twice as many black and minority ethnic (BME) workers (15%) have been faced with “fire and rehire” as white workers (8%)
The tactic is not new
In recent years it has commonly been used to take a knife to terms and conditions at retailers such as Asda, where workers who didn’t accept a new contract were told they would be dismissed and given seven days to re-apply for their jobs.
But what we are now seeing is a step-up in employer’s use of hardball tactics as they seek to use the lockdown and worker concerns about job security to slash costs for the long-term.
In hospitality, for example, unions report a concerted effort to level down pay and conditions across the sector, including moving longstanding workers onto insecure contracts offering zero or minimal guaranteed hours.
The use of fire-and-rehire – or at least its threat - is the most blatant use of strong-arm tactics by employers emboldened by a lockdown that has seen many workers lose their jobs and leave others in fear of unemployment.
The TUC polling reveals that nearly a quarter of workers in Britain have experienced a downgrading of their terms during the crisis – including through reduced pay or changes to their hours.
One in three young workers aged between 18 and 24 say their terms at work have deteriorated since March.
And a nearly a third of low-paid workers (those earning up to £15,000) report the same.
Around two-fifths of workers say they are worried about job security in the year ahead.
What can be done?
The TUC wants the government to take urgent steps that force employers to negotiate contract changes with workers and their unions rather than unilaterally imposing them.
Currently, there are a host of weaknesses in labour law that allow well-advised employers to get away with fire-and-rehire.
Employers only need to undertake collective consultation with workers and unions where large-scale dismissals are being considered.
Many interpret the law as allowing them to put the proposed changes directly to workers over the heads of their unions, giving them less opportunity to formulate a strong collective response.
The law concerning unfair dismissal allows bosses to seek to justify dismissals under the extremely broad category of “some other substantial reasons” citing business concerns.
In several other countries, employers could not get away with fire-and-rehire.
In Spain the government took action to prevent fire-and-rehire during the pandemic.
The constitution and laws in Ireland make the tactics hard to deploy there.
Ministers should start work on providing protection against these vicious practices to workers in the UK too.
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