Unite members sent a loud and clear message at a protest on Wednesday (May 11) calling for the end of fire and rehire contracts.
The Unite members, striking workers who face being forced onto contracts that would see their pay slashed by thousands of pounds, joined Labour MPs on a boat on the river Thames to call on the government to ban the pernicious employment practice which is sweeping through UK workplaces amid the pandemic.
The boat sailed past Parliament, timed to coincide with the Queen’s Speech, as protestors, wielding Unite flags and placards, chanted ‘We say no to fire and rehire’ and ‘Tories out!”
Among those in attendance were workers from Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE). JDE is attempting to dismiss and re-engage 291 employees at its Banbury coffee factory on new contracts that could see some workers lose between £7,000 and £12,000 a year.
The workers took strike action last weekend, with more strike dates on the cards as negotiations continue, as well as a continuous overtime ban in place since May 1.
Unite JDE Banbury convenor Chris Moon (pictured below), who has worked at the coffee factory for 26 years said he and his colleagues were devastated when the company insisted on pushing through the new contracts.
Chris said that he and others will not only be losing out on significant sums of money in the long-term, but are also being forced onto different shift patterns.
“I’ll be working a completely different shift pattern where I’ll be working Christmases, weekends and bank holidays – this will have a significant impact on my family life.”
Chris called fire and rehire “deplorable” and said it amounted to “corporate greed”.
“My message to the government is this — please listen to the people who have put you in power — take heed of this, talk to these companies, and make fire and rehire illegal as it is in other countries,” he added.
Unite rep and JDE worker Andrew Compton (pictured below) agreed.
“I was very disappointed by the actions the company have taken especially given the amount of profits they had already announced,” Andrew explained. “There is absolutely no need – there’s never been any evidence to show that they need to carry this through. This is just a blatant attack on workers’ terms and conditions.”
Andrew said he and his family will “lose out on vast sums of money — it’s us ordinary families that are going to be taking this massive hit while the company won’t have to suffer at all”.
“The government needs to realise that fire and rehire is affecting a lot of people in this country now – some families are even losing their homes. If they don’t step in now things will only get worse.”
Referencing staff from London-based letting services firm Goodlord, who are striking over £6,000 fire and rehire cuts, also joined Unite’s boat protest.
They have been on continuous strike action since February after Goodlord singled out referencing staff – the lowest-paid workers in the company – for fire and rehire attacks.
The workers were originally employed on fixed-term contracts – in January they were offered permanent roles doing the exact same work but on £6,000 less. The pay cuts on the new contracts would take their wages below the London Living Wage to £18,000 a year.
Unite member and Goodlord worker Martyna (pictured below) said she had moved into a more expensive flat with her boyfriend before the new contracts were announced.
“I didn’t think my pay could possibly drop any less – I relied on the fact that I was earning £24,000 a year when I moved,” Martyna explained. “Now it means we struggle to pay the rent.”
“I think fire and rehire is not just wrong but it doesn’t make any business sense,” Martyna added. “When employers do things like this you don’t feel valued, you feel like you’re no one to them and your motivation plummets so you just want to leave and look for work somewhere else.”
Unite member and former Goodlord worker Athena (pictured below) agreed.
Athena, who refused to accept the new contract and is now unemployed, recalled her and her colleagues initial reaction to the company’s new contracts.
“We were outraged – I can’t tell you how shocked we were,” she said. “I had decided to do this job because of the initial salary they offered. That was the only reason I left my previous career in fitness. Being paid less than the London Living Wage is just not acceptable.”
Commenting on fire and rehire, Athena said, “It is immoral to use an economic situation to cut the wages of the lowest paid in your company – to employ someone on a certain wage and then all of sudden you tell them their labour is not worth as much.
“Your entire company exists because of the work that your employees do,” she added. “The only way fire and rehire makes sense is in the minds of incompetent CEOs who just want to please investors in the short-term – nothing else.”
Athena, who is a first-time union member, called being part of Unite “absolutely amazing”.
“For those of us who have joined the union we have this new outlook on life,” she explained. “When you feel like the entire world is against you and you can’t do anything about it, that’s when you realise that there are already institutions – unions — that exist that can help you as workers stick together and fight for the good of everyone.”
Emmeline (pictured below), a Goodlord worker who is also a first-time union member, agreed.
“It’s been really wonderful being part of Unite,” she said. “They’ve been so incredibly supportive and really amenable to what we wanted to do.
“At the beginning we said we wanted to do less in-person demonstrations and be really social media focused because the company really cares about their online reputation,” she added. “So Unite was totally on-board with that and it was just really nice to be listened to and respected, at a time when we weren’t being listened to or respected by our employer.”
Recounting when she first learned the company’s plans to fire and rehire her and her colleagues, Emmeline said, “It was a real slap in the face the company telling us that the work they we’d been doing for the last year wasn’t worth anything to them. A lot of my colleagues had to move out of London or move back in with their parents.”
Emmeline urged the government to ban fire and rehire.
“Make it illegal and stop this exploitation,” she said. “It’s already gone too far – it’s happening in many different companies across the UK and this will affect people and their families for the rest of their lives. We need to stop it now.”
Unite national officer for the food industry Joe Clarke, who joined JDE members on the boat, agreed.
Highlighting the fire and rehire fight JDE workers are facing, Clarke said, “There needs to be protection for workers. In many countries throughout the world, for example in Spain and in Ireland, these tactics are unlawful and they should be unlawful here. Food sector companies in particular have made huge profits. This is nothing but corporate greed by corporate gangsters – this is what fire and rehire is all about.”
Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett, who also attended today’s protest, said Unite would continue to take the government to task on fire and rehire.
Commenting on the Queen’s Speech, where the government failed to announce any moves to ban fire and rehire, Beckett said, “Working people will be bitterly disappointed that the prime minister has failed to use this opportunity to outlaw fire and rehire.
“Instead of desperately needed protection from what the government itself calls a bully boy practice, all workers will get from Boris Johnson’s government are warm words,” he added.
“But with one in 10 working people being told take a massive pay cut or take a hike, we will keep hounding the Tories on this until they act to end fire and rehire.”
By Hajera Blagg