At the beginning of last week, British Gas began retrieving the vans and tools used by hundreds of its gas engineers before one of the largest mass dismissals in recent British history. Days later, between 300 to 400 staff lost their jobs for refusing to sign up to new contract terms imposed by its FTSE 100 parent company.
For some engineers, the British Gas kit used to repair and install the boilers and heating systems of millions of customers across the country had been part of their lives for decades. It was the same equipment used to restore warmth to homes during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, when engineers clad in PPE stood in the frontline of their employer’s pandemic response.
Today, all that remains of the jobs culled through the company’s “fire-and-rehire” scheme is a graveyard depot of hundreds of British Gas vans, waiting to be redistributed among those who agreed – often under duress, according to unions – to sign up to tougher new contracts.
The company’s aim? Improved productivity. The result? A bitter battle between unions and executives which continues to smoulder.
The tactic is legal, but controversial. In the days after hundreds were sacked for refusing to agree to longer hours and shifts over weekends and bank holidays, more than 126,000 people signed a petition calling on the government to ban fire-and-rehire in the UK. It is illegal in Ireland and Spain, so why not here too?
Trade unions have laid the blame for the row firmly on the shoulders of Centrica’s chief executive, Chris O’Shea.
O’Shea himself admits that raising the strategy early in the company’s talks with unions last summer was misjudged. He believed it was the legally compliant way to proceed. The unions believed it was used as a heavy-handed bullying tactic rather than a measure of last resort.
The chief executive, who was previously the company’s chief financial officer, has shown all the hallmarks of a good “money man”: a keen eye on costs and productivity, and a determination to wrest the company’s future back from the brink of financial collapse. But his ruthless pragmatism has