Thousands of customers of British Gas have signed a petition and written to parent company Centrica to complain about the supplier’s treatment of its workforce, which has launched industrial action in response to controversial “fire and rehire” plans.
Many of the customers have threatened to switch away from the energy supplier unless it ditches plans to make staff accept longer hours and less pay or lose their jobs.
British Gas outlined this fire and rehire policy last summer in an effort to “streamline” its employment contracts and boost productivity.
The tough terms affect all 20,000 British Gas employees, but 7,500 engineers, who install and repair boilers and heating systems for 3.6 million service customers, fear they’ll bear the brunt of the changes. Under the new terms, full-time engineers will be required to work an additional three hours a week, 40 hours in total. They’ll also no longer be paid a higher rate for working weekends and public holidays. Trade union GMB said the changes amount to a 15% pay cut in real terms.
Workers have until today, 1 April, to accept the longer working hours or face dismissal.
Engineers have been striking in protest of the plans, today announcing they will walk out again on 14 April, their 43rd day of industrial action this year.
Trade unions say workers are paying the price for years of deep losses at British Gas and parent company Centrica. While British Gas remains the UK’s largest energy supplier and its service arm has posted profits, the company haemorrhaged customers and money in recent years, as consumers look for cheaper and greener offerings from more nimble competitors.
The supplier’s profits fell to a record low of £80 million last year, just a fraction of the £742 million it posted 10 years ago, before years of decline pushed parent company Centrica out of the FTSE 100 last June.
Engineers have said the new contracts are a betrayal of frontline workers, who have continued to enter homes in full PPE for essential repairs of boilers and heating systems throughout the pandemic.
Justin Bowden, GMB National Secretary, said: "For the CEO [Centrica boss Chris O’Shea] to gamble the future of a profitable business on a strategic decision of mass sackings is illogical. It will leave everyone bewildered.
“There is still time to pull back. Mr O'Shea should do what's right for the business, the customers and the workers and take the April 1 deadline off the table."
Thousands of members of the public, including British Gas customers, have voiced their support for the workers. 50,000 people have signed a petition by campaign group 38 Degrees protesting the fire and rehire plans. 38 Degrees said signees had expressed concern that British Gas’s fire and rehire plans could set a dangerous precedent that could be used to erode working conditions across the economy.
They’ve also reported “overwhelmingly positive” interactions with British Gas engineers, particularly throughout the pandemic, “where staff put themselves at risk by entering people’s homes to keep their crucial utilities running.”
Additionally, 4,000 people have written directly to Centrica boss O’Shea to voice their disgust at the plans. Some have threatened to ditch the supplier.
Centrica says the company’s service and repair work has been undercut by local ‘white van’ engineers and the new terms are necessary to trim costs and remain competitive.
“Our costs are between one-third and one-half higher than the person with a white van, and that is an unsustainable position,” O’Shea said.“Without change we would continue to decline. So I took the decision to engage with all four of our trade unions – Unite, Unison, Prospect and GMB—to discuss this and seek a negotiated settlement. And we managed to achieve one with all but the GMB. It’s deeply regrettable. But it’s about the long-term sustainability of our business.”
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