Words by Rebecca Chitolie, News Editor
On October 22nd, Ministers blocked a Commons bill that would have prevented the practice of companies firing staff and then rehiring them on worse pay and conditions, saying that while they opposed such practices, legislation was the wrong way to respond.
Before voting on the bill itself, MPs voted on a closure motion – a vote on whether to vote on the bill – and due to the government’s opposition, it failed to get through by 188 votes to 251.
After that, MPs were able to resume the debate but “talked it out” – meaning that members opposing the bill stopped another vote happening by continuing to speak right up to the allotted time for discussion.
Business minister, Paul Scully, spoke for more than 40 minutes in the chamber, ensuring that discussions about the proposed law ran out of time.
The debate follows increasing concern over “fire and rehire” tactics, used by companies such as British Gas, which dismissed thousands of engineers earlier this year and reemployed them on worse terms and conditions. Those who had refused to accept a pay cut and longer, more antisocial hours became unemployed.
Labour MP Barry Gardiner, who put forward the bill, explained “Fire-and-rehire has existed for decades, but the practice has come under more scrutiny recently as more firms hit by the pandemic have used it to reduce their staffing costs”.
Gardiner said the decision to whip Conservative MPs to oppose the bill and then use the tactic of talking the bill out was “cowardly”. He said: “In politics, it’s rare to find something that absolutely everyone agrees on … All the way from Len McCluskey to the prime minister himself, everyone agrees fire and rehire is wrong. So why is the government determined to block this bill?”
This decision angered opposition parties and unions, with Frances O’Grady, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) general secretary, saying: “The government has chosen to side with bad bosses by failing to take action to tackle fire and rehire today. It’s a national scandal. Even the prime minister calls the practice unacceptable”.
The government argues that companies in serious financial difficulty must have the option of offering staff new jobs, if the alternative is closure. However, an analysis earlier this year found that nearly 70% of firms engaging in the practice were making a profit.
Gardiner stressed that the bill did not completely ban fire and rehire, as it could be necessary to prevent a company collapse, but “puts on a statutory footing the procedure that decent employers already follow”.
Scully emphasised that he believed “the bully-boy tactics of fire-and-rehire, for use as a negotiating tactic, is absolutely inappropriate”. However, he doesn’t believe there is sufficient evidence that legislation will stop the practice or be effective. He warned that in some cases “if you get rid of fire and rehire, you end up with fire”.
Scully went on to say that legislation agreed in the context of a pandemic was not “the right way to reflect the concerns for the long-term issue about workers’ rights”, adding: “What we need to do is make sure that we can address these situations. We’ll legislate if we need to, but we’ll do it as a last resort, not as a first resort”.
A spokesperson for Boris Johnson said that “there isn’t sufficient evidence to show legislation will stop the practice or be effective”.
The government has said that it asked the organisation Acas, who published a report on this issue on 8 June, to produce more comprehensive, clearer guidance to help all employers explore all the options before considering ‘fire and rehire’.Mr Gardiner’s bill is unlikely to progress any further, however the debate on this ongoing issue is scheduled to be resumed on Friday 10th December.