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Will the British Gas sackings be a harbinger of doom for workers’ rights?

Owen Jones
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Back in the early months of the pandemic, the nationwide clap for carers, performed on Thursday evenings, was supposed to be an outpouring of solidarity and gratitude to frontline workers for their efforts in tackling the virus, not self-congratulatory hypocrisy. Now that British Gas workers have been sacked en masse for refusing to sign up to slashed terms and conditions, it is worth wondering how many of the company’s senior executives on exorbitant salaries applauded their key workers last year. How many of them whooped, cheered and banged pots and pans to show their neighbours they really, really care, before undermining the working conditions of engineers and other workers at the company who risked their health to help keep Britain functioning during its gravest postwar emergency?

The fate of British Gas employees should disturb millions of other workers because it could prove a harbinger for their own futures. The Conservatives have laid so many obstacles to industrial action that it has become unthinkable for most workers: that a super majority of 89% of GMB union members who took part in the ballot at British Gas voted in favour of striking over its plans – overcoming acute legal thresholds – is indicative of the strength of feeling among the rank and file. At a time when many workers were suffering unprecedented stress because of the pandemic, British Gas sought to bully them into either accepting longer working hours or losing their jobs.

Related: Hundreds of British Gas engineers to lose jobs in ‘fire and rehire’ scheme

“We’ve been treated like criminals,” Paul Vowles, a 40-year-old striking worker from Cannock, tells me. “It’s been a horrific experience. Before fire and rehire was proposed, I didn’t realise how bad it was for mental health.” While most workers have been coerced into signing the new agreement – they have families to feed and work is hardly abundant in Covid-era Britain – hundreds who refuse are to have their employment unceremoniously terminated.

It is a saga that tells many stories. British Gas was a jewel in the crown of Britain’s privatisation programme of the 1980s and 90s, a nationally respected institution. Today, it is a byword for rip-off services and now a poster boy for tawdry treatment of workers. The fact that British bosses see the country’s recent crises as opportunities to gut workers’ rights is a story largely left untold. During the financial crash, the Confederation of British Industry – the bosses’ official federation – boasted of using the disaster to establish a so-called “flexiforce”: an ever-diminishing core of permanent workers with rights and a larger ring of flexible workers lacking basic security. The pandemic provides a renewed opening for big business to shift power even further away from workers so it can boost long-term profits for shareholders. Covid-19 has proved a useful cover for British Gas: media outlets are hardly favourable to striking workers even in times of supposed normality, but the biggest strike of the year has attracted derisory coverage.

It would be facile to write off these courageous strikers as just another inevitable “glorious” defeat for Britain’s beleaguered unionised workers. Our own Conservative government claims to be opposed to such “fire and rehire” tactics, where businesses sack workers only to re-employ them on reduced terms. Yet it is certainly true that several Tory cabinet ministers – principally Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng – once co-authored a leaflet calling British workers “among the worst idlers in the world” as justification for attacking their rights. While many workers voted for Brexit as a sign of displeasure with a broken status quo, for Tory politicians it provided an opportunity to scrap what they call “red tape” but which is more accurately described as “hard-won rights and protections”.

British Gas strikers have succeeded in raising the profile of this grim means of undercutting rights, and if the Tories wish to prove fears about their intentions wrong, here is their opportunity. Indeed, Kwarteng – the cabinet minister with the relevant brief – now claims “Brexit gives us the opportunity to have higher standards”: he now has his chance to prove it.

“If anything comes from this strike in future, it’s to stop it happening to anyone else,” Vowles tells me. “That would be a massive victory for everybody.” While Labour has commendably backed the strike, it should use this moment to pile pressure on a Tory party that extols its supposed “blue-collar” credentials. The danger, otherwise, is that other bosses see British Gas get away with it and take note – and then a relentless race to the bottom truly beckons for Britain’s workforce.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist