Apprentices at British Gas gained two new recruits on Monday, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak appeared in branded jackets at their training academy in Leicestershire.

In Sunderland, Ciara Arrowsmith, a former service and repair engineer with British Gas who left her job as a battle over ‘fire and rehire’ engulfed the company, was appalled.

“I saw Boris on the TV when he visited British Gas and realised he isn’t going to do anything.

“He is just spineless. They need to make fire and rehire illegal. It is ­unethical and immoral.”

Fire and rehire is the growing practice of laying off staff and then offering workers their jobs back with reduced pay or worse conditions. It’s currently legal, but Labour and trade unions are campaigning to outlaw it.

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Loyal Ciara refused new contract at British Gas

Ciara, 37, left British Gas in February after refusing to sign a new contract with what she says were tougher terms and longer hours. After 13 years at the company, Ciara says she was so loyal to British Gas she had “blue blood in me”.

“I felt gutted when I left. I put everything into the job.” When she was shown the new terms, she says, “I felt worthless, and my anxiety was really bad. I had customers ring me and say, if you’re leaving, we’re leaving.”

Fire and rehire has spread like a virus during the Covid-19 pandemic. A poll by the TUC earlier this year found that nearly one in 10 workers had been told to re-apply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions since the first lockdown in March 2020.

The same study showed it disproportionately affected young, working class and BME workers.

Sunak and Johnson at British Gas academy (

Image:

Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street)

A ballot on industrial action at Clarks shoes over fire and rehire closed on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Weetabix staff at factories in Kettering and Corby voted for strike action over plans to rehire them on deals they say would leave them £5,000 poorer a year.

Unite settled a dispute earlier this year with British Airways over fire and rehire plans affecting its cargo ­division’s workforce.

Fire and rehire has been a theme all week at the TUC Congress. At the same moment Sunak and Johnson were playing at being boiler engineers, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady was making her opening speech to Congress in London.

“It can’t be right that a boss can threaten to sack loyal workers, often after years of service, unless they accept worse pay and conditions,” she told the annual gathering of Britain’s trade unionists. “It’s high time we outlawed that evil practice of fire and rehire.”

Johnson has been called 'spineless' (

Image:

Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street)

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Unite the Union’s general secretary Sharon Graham called the practice “an abhorrence” and “one of the scandals of our age”.

Dean Ismay, 29, from Cheltenham, Glos, shared a moving testimony with Congress as a disabled worker and GMB delegate who said he experienced fire and rehire at Asda.

“Fire and rehire is a dirty, bullying tactic. It wrecks lives and trashes the economy,” he told delegates. “I have personally been subjected to this horrible tactic at Asda.”

Dean worked at the supermarket chain for five years until 2020 when he says they brought in new contracts that changed people’s rights at work.

“When they issued the dismissal notices to us, I felt so sick with worry. As a disabled worker I felt utterly betrayed by the business. I was so stressed and I was worried about my health. Fire and rehire must be consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.”

Asda said: “In 2019 we introduced a simpler and fairer contract for hourly-paid colleagues in our stores to ensure they all received the same terms and conditions.

“As part of this change, we invested £80million to increase the take-home pay of more than 100,000 colleagues, whilst also maintaining their existing benefits.”

A British Gas spokesman said: “We reached an agreement with our unions in July that is critical in ensuring our business is sustainable, competitive and set up for growth. We had to take measures to protect almost 20,000 jobs and there was a job for everyone at the end of the process.

“To ensure we have a workforce that can help to make the transition to low carbon both hassle-free and affordable for our customers, we’re creating 3,500 apprenticeship roles over the next decade – these will be highly skilled and well-paid British jobs.”

For Ciara, seeing the Prime Minister at British Gas with the boss of Centrica, which owns British Gas, confirmed her worst fears.

“Boris’s visit to the British Gas academy was no surprise really,” she says. “To see him standing side by side with Chris O’Shea made it crystal clear that there was never any intention to stop fire and rehire.”

Unions and MPs intend to challenge that arrogance. On Wednesday, Unite led a Day of Action urging MPs to sign Barry Gardiner MP’s Private Members’ Bill to challenge fire and rehire.

The Bill is due its second reading on October 22.

“MPs from every political party and every corner of the country are saying that fire and rehire is wrong,” says Gardiner. “Bullying and intimidation is not the way forward if we want decent employment and a productive economy. Next month my colleagues in Parliament have a chance to stand up and stop the bullying.”

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