Striking gas engineers in Wellingborough say they have no choice but to fight against contract changes

They gathered to highlight their grievances against their employers

By Alison Bagley
Friday, 29th January 2021, 12:54 pm
Updated Friday, 29th January 2021, 11:38 pm

British Gas engineers from north Northamptonshire have been demonstrating support for their strike in a dispute over new contracts in Wellingborough today (Friday).

Thousands of staff across the country walked out last week in response to an attempt by Centrica owner British Gas to push through the 'fire and rehire' strategy.

Gas engineers covering the north of the county, who are members of the GMB union, gathered at Turnells Mill Lane on day eight of their dispute to highlight the issue.

l-r Steve Graham and Simon Scarfe

Taking part in the high-visibility public demonstration of their dispute were members of staff who voted for industrial action by 89 per cent in a ballot of 9,000 members last month.

Simon Scarfe, 52, a British Gas heating engineer of 18 years from Burton Latimer, said: "Not earning has been a struggle with the days we are losing in pay. They intend to fire us and re-hire us on a different contract which will mean 156 hours extra work for the same pay - each.

"We go round to people's houses and they rely on us. We don't want to let them down."

The "fire and rehire" proposal would allow the company to terminate existing contracts and offer fresh terms, known as a section 188 notice. Centrica has described the plans as an "insurance policy" if talks with unions fall apart.

The socially-distanced protest

The strike will continue over four days of the week with the engineers providing cover on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Chris O'Shea, chief executive of the utility firm's parent company Centrica, has been called to give evidence to the Commons Business Select Committee on Tuesday.

Steve Graham, 49, from Finedon has worked for British Gas for 33 years, starting out as a YTS trainee.

He said: "I have never been on strike before - I used to be the president of the Conservative Club in Irthlingborough.

Members of the GMB union

"They have been a good company to work for. They have given me security. I could have earned more if I was self-employed but they gave me security which is important.

"We love the customers but we have just had to make a stand. We have no choice but to carry on."

In June, Centrica said it planned to cut around 5,000 jobs to "arrest the decline" of the company. In February last year, it blamed a big loss in 2019 on the energy price cap and falling gas prices.

Centrica said 83 per cent of workers had already accepted its new terms and conditions, which it said protected base pay and pensions.

38-year-old Scott Holland from Burton Latimer has worked for the company for 16 years. He said: "There is a need for change but it's unimaginable that they can use this dismiss and re-engage strategy. It's a bitter pill. I feel for the people who have been here longer than me.

"I'm supposed to be working this weekend. I want to be fixing people's boilers."

Centrica has said it has done everything it could to avoid a strike, adding it would prioritise vulnerable households and emergencies during the walkout.

A Centrica spokesman said: "Our business needs to change to survive and protect 20,000 jobs. We know change is difficult but we have offered a fair deal that has been negotiated over 300 hours with unions – where base pay and pensions are protected.

"Using dismissal and re-engagement is genuinely and has always been a final resort option. That’s why we have worked so hard to ensure that it has now been removed for a significant majority of our employees – 83 per cent have already agreed to the new terms.’’

‘‘The majority of our workforce are not on strike and are working incredibly hard to ensure our customers are taken care of.”