It’s time to end the scandal of ‘fire and rehire’ and enhance workers’ rights

As well as my role as the SNP’s Westminster Transport Spokesperson I sit on the Commons Transport Select Committee, and we decided to look into the impact of coronavirus on the transport industry.

As part of our investigation, we looked into British Airways and their plans to make a third of their workforce redundant, while threatening the other two-thirds with the sack if they didn’t sign up for huge pay cuts and slashed conditions amounting to a reduction in take home pay of up to 70%!

We were inundated with emails and messages from BA staff around the country, outlining their experiences of being told to choose between the dole or their dignity.

Staff with decades of service were being given weeks to make decisions that would impact the rest of their lives, while BA management seemed to relish the prospect of bringing the staff to heel.

This seemed to be unfinished business for former BA CEO, Willie Walsh, who was now IAG – BA’s parent group – CEO who had tried a similar attack on pay and conditions some years ago.
Moreover, it should be noted that the practice is illegal in much of Europe, including in Spain and Ireland where BA’s IAG partner airlines are based.

We’ve subsequently seen other companies such as Centrica (British/Scottish) Gas use these ‘fire and rehire’ tactics to attack workers’ pay and conditions, affecting tens of thousands of their staff.

Despite the fact that employment law is reserved to Westminster I was, frankly, astounded that these tactics weren’t illegal.

Perhaps they were acceptable in a 19th century Dickens novel – but surely not in the country that has, “some of the best and most productive companies in the world”, according to the Prime Minister.

Yet here was a company continually held up by the UK Government as a world-leader, a literal flag-carrier, telling tens of thousands of its staff to sign up for huge pay cuts or face the sack, right in the middle of the biggest economic crisis the world has seen in 80 years.

That struck me as not just morally wrong, but economically disastrous. Workers need security not only for its own sake, but also to support the participation in our economy we need to rebuild for the post-covid future.

With that in mind, I spoke to trades unions and the parliamentary draftsmen – who, by the way, are the unsung heroes of our parliamentary process, at Westminster and Holyrood – and with their help put together a simple piece of legislation that would prohibit employers from deploying such reprehensible tactics.

I submitted my Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill in June of this year. I know it has zero chance of being debated and voted upon, far less passed, without the support of the UK Government. An 80 seat majority and absolute control of Westminster’s antiquated procedures makes sure of that.

But I also know the strength of feeling, here and elsewhere, about what unaccountable and unscrupulous employers are doing to staff who have shown nothing but dedication and loyalty during their careers.

If coronavirus has shown anything, it’s that our society and our economy function at their best as a collective endeavour, not as a dog eat dog race to the bottom. Workers deserve the protection of their government against the worst excess of big business and be able to know that same government has their back.

Throughout I’ve tried to work with other parties at Westminster to achieve change. This is an issue that has so far affected hundreds of thousands across these isles and potentially affects millions more. It cannot be reduced to party political point scoring for the sake of it.

I am grateful to the MPs of all parties who backed my call for change and co-signed our letter to the Business Secretary and have supported me over recent months – including a few sotto voce Tories. And just three months after my Bill was lodged, the UK Labour leader joined the calls for beefed up protections for our workforce.

But with no movement so far from the UK Government, it’s clear that only by having the real powers if independence can we in Scotland decisively change workers’ rights for the better and protect our citizens from bullying bosses.

If the Westminster Government won’t take responsibility for supporting our workers, they should get out the way and allow the Scottish Government to do the job.

Too often the reality of being an MP is trying to help constituents beat a system that has let them down. My Bill gives the opportunity to change that system altogether.