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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Fire and Rehire

by New Worker correspondent

THE PHRASE “Fire and Rehire” has become depressingly common in recent months. According to research by the Trades Union Congress about a tenth of the British workforce have been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions since the first lockdown started a year ago.

TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, has said that it has “no place in modern Britain and must be outlawed. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect at work,” adding that: “forcing people to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions is plain wrong”.

This is politely echoed by Ben Willmott, speaking on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the trade body for Human Resources Managers (as personnel officers are known today). He said that “forcing a change to an employment contract by dismissing someone and rehiring on different terms should be “an absolute last resort”.

The TUC’s survey covered 2,231 workers in England and Wales. It also showed that 18 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds said their employer had tried to rehire them on inferior terms during the pandemic and that particularly hard hit were ethnic minority workers. Nearly a quarter of all workers experienced a downgrading of their terms during the crisis – including through reduced pay or changes to their hours.

The TUC is also demanding that the Government urgently passes its Employment Bill first announced in the 2019 Queen’s speech which is designed to outlaw hire and fire. It is expected it will include clauses including a new right after 26 weeks of service to request a more predictable and stable contract and an extension of redundancy protection. O’Grady hopefully said: “Boris Johnson promised to make the UK the best place in the world to work in. It’s high time he delivered on this promise ”.

Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey joined in to say “Fire and rehire” is ripping through our workplaces like a disease. “Weak law lets bad bosses force through brutal changes to contracts, sometimes taking thousands of pounds off wages that families need to get by. Unite is fighting for UK workers to be treated with the same decency”.

However being an organisation for administrators of capitalism CIPD takes the view that “These are difficult times for businesses. The economic disruption caused by the lockdown measures has meant many employers have had no choice but to try and renegotiate their employment contracts”. It also points out that fire and rehire has long been used in redundancy situations so that bosses can put all workers at risk allowing them to pick and choose who to keep and who to sack.

if agreed

Needless to say Fire and Hire is not totally illegal. Employers can change contracts, after all that is what trade unions do in reverse by seeking to improve terms. According to the conciliation service ACAS an employer can change a contract if there is flexibility clause, and if it is agreed by workers after consultation

But bosses ignoring these procedures could lay themselves open to legal action according to Danielle Parsons, an employment solicitor at Slater & Gordon. She adds that “Most employees in this situation, particularly in the current economic climate, are likely to be forced to accept [the new contract], whatever the terms, to avoid unemployment. If this is the case, then the employee may have a claim for unfair dismissal if they have more than two years of service”.

As an alternative she advises bosses to impose recruitment freezes, voluntary redundancies, offering sabbaticals or making use of the furlough scheme. Ms Parsons does not suggest that bosses might take a pay-cut or that dividend payments could be cancelled.

Amanda Lennon, partner at another law firm, Spencer West, said: “These are unprecedented times and so otherwise esoteric or drastic actions have started to emerge as apparent norms”.

Other CIPD worthies respectfully warn that bosses could damage the reputation of a business because “consumers are more likely to turn away from businesses that put profit before people” but most bosses know that consumers have short memories, and in any case a supermarket employing workers on the minimum wage offering tuppence off will always get more customers than a shop boasting of being an ethical employer.

In one very specific case the Scottish Court of Session has issued a temporary injunction prohibiting Tesco from unilaterally withdrawing entitlement to retained pay at its distribution centre near Edinburgh. The shop workers’ union that took up the case said workers would lose between £4,000 and £19,000 per year. Only if Tesco appeal will it become clear if the process is illegal or not.

As can be seen this injunction only applies at one establishment and has not stopped other bosses using fire and rehire.

One company, London based lettings platform Goodlord simply denied that imposing new contracts was fire and rehire ahead of a strike late last month. It claimed it was offering temporary workers the chance to take up permanent contracts which would bring the security of full-time employment and the UK Real Living Wage.