British Gas engineers across south east London are on their fifth day of strike action out on Crittalls Corner over plans to ‘fire and rehire’ them on worse terms.
Thousands of staff walked out on Thursday after the GMB union said its members had been “provoked” into taking industrial action, warning of further stoppages if the row is not resolved.
British Gas employee Darren Chambers has been leading the local strike action, with him and colleagues camped out on Crittalls Corner for five days now.
He said the dispute was “threatening their livelihood,” and said his staff had turned out in numbers.
“It’s been brilliant, the support we’ve had from MPs and locals. We’ve had tea from locals and loads of cars beeping their horns. Police came by to check everything was proper and safe and they were happy.”
British Gas owners Centrica said it had contingency plans in place to deal with the walkout, and will prioritise vulnerable households and emergencies.
The strike involves around 4,500 service and repair gas engineers, 600 central heating installers, 540 electrical engineers, 170 specialist business gas engineers and 1,700 smart metering engineers, said the union.
The only exceptions to the industrial action will be dealing with emergencies and problems for households with vulnerable people, according to the union.
The strike follows a 9-1 vote in favour of industrial action by members of the GMB, which accused Centrica of planning to cut pay, terms and conditions under moves to “fire and rehire” employees.
Darren said they had effectively been told when entering negotiations that if they failed to sign an agreement by April 1, then they would be sacked.
He described it as “going into negotiations with a gun to our head,” adding that the new terms would see engineers work an extra 156 hours a year for the same wage.
“We all understand things need to change, but senior management have put a gun to our heads.
“We want them to withdraw this, in fact we’ve had 86% vote for strike action, the biggest since the 1970s.
“It’s not about more money, which is what you assume when you hear industrial action. We want a work life balance and fair negotiations, not ‘fire and rehire.’
GMB national official Justin Bowden said the actions of British Gas had “tarnished” its reputation.
“GMB members from Land’s End to John O’Groats have stayed home, stayed safe and supported the first national gas strike in a decade.
“The months and months of fire and rehire pay cut threats from British Gas CEO Chris O’Shea have provoked thousands and thousands of GMB engineers and call centre staff to strike, the only option left to them by a business that made £901m operating profit yet still plans to sack them because they won’t accept the scale of cuts it demands,” he added.”
He added: “The use of fire and re-hire threats has been condemned across the political spectrum and caused huge anger among this dedicated workforce.”
Mr Bowden said workers had been “provoked” into taking industrial action.
A Centrica spokesman said: “We’ve done everything we can with the GMB to avoid industrial action.
“Whilst we’ve made great progress with our other unions, sadly the GMB leadership seems intent on causing disruption to customers during the coldest weekend of the year, amid a global health crisis and in the middle of a national lockdown.
“We have strong contingency plans in place to ensure we will still be there for customers who really need us, and we’ll prioritise vulnerable households and emergencies.”
MP Clive Efford visited the group earlier today, whilst Matthew Pennycook said he had spoken to the union members about the company’s “shameful attempts” to rehire them on worse terms.
Centrica said it had lost too many customers and jobs in recent years, saying it was trying to protect jobs.
“If we are to avoid more job losses and continue, unlike most in the sector, to maintain a highly skilled team of engineers, employed directly by the company, these new terms and conditions are essential.
“A very significant number of engineers striking will have accepted the new terms already,” it said, adding that four out of five of its workforce had accepted new terms, in which base pay and pensions were protected.