As our country went through the toughest days of the pandemic, it was workers on the front line, in back rooms and in their living rooms who got us through it. And what is their reward? A government that heaps their own failures onto the shoulders of working people, by increasing taxes, cutting universal credit and weakening employment rights.
We should be building a fairer society coming out of the Covid crisis. Instead, unscrupulous bosses are being given a green light to intimidate workers into accepting worse pay and conditions. Almost 3 million workers have been told to reapply for their jobs since the first lockdown in March, with Covid being used as a smokescreen to erode workers’ rights, slash pay, keep wages and conditions low and increase value for shareholders.
The practice is happening in private companies as well as public bodies, including civil service facilities management, and this government has not lifted a finger to stop them. Instead, we have a prime minister who says it was “greed” that got us through the pandemic – not the dedication and effort of working people.
The prime minister habitually underestimates and undervalues the British public.
This weak government has allowed bad bosses to force brutal changes to contracts and take thousands in wages from families. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, has said the government will “tackle” fire and rehire. Boris Johnson himself has said the practice is unacceptable. But so far we have seen nothing but characteristic dither, delay, and a litany of excuses. What we never see is a plan, nor action.
It’s time to even the playing field and stop allowing this awful practice to flourish. That’s why the Labour Party is supporting a private members’ bill, brought by Barry Gardiner, to stamp out fire and rehire.
This bill will give working people important rights. It will give employees new protections, enabling them to claim automatic unfair dismissal if their employer tries to force them onto a worse contract. And it will compel bosses to negotiate with their staff, rather than defaulting to sackings.
This bill will not only protect staff, but is in the best interests of consumers. For every worker forced out of a key sector, there is a consumer without the goods and services they need. It’s bad for the economy, undermining productivity and it’s slashing tax receipts.
The Labour Party would go even further, introducing a new deal for working people that would give all workers basic rights from day one of the job, immediately raise the minimum wage to at least £10 per hour, increase sick pay, empower workers to collectively negotiate fair pay agreements and give all workers the right to flexible working.
There is agreement across the political spectrum that fire and rehire is unfair, unjust and unacceptable. But once again we have only warm words and bluster from Boris Johnson, who is ordering his MPs to vote down the bill – selling out working people in the process. If ever in doubt, it’s clear the Conservatives are not on the side of the workers.
The Tories need to stop living in the past and see that the world of work has changed. We need our rights and protections to catch up.
That’s why we’re calling out the government for not supporting this bill. Working people deserve better than excuses. We need an overhaul of the system that stops exploitation and bullying and gives working people real security.
We can’t go back to business as usual after the pandemic. We must use this opportunity to bring employment law into the modern age and build a better country and a fairer society for us all.
Sir Keir Starmer is the leader of the Labour Party