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“Walking off the job is the only way to express our anger”

An electrician explains why he and his colleagues feel so angry about the imposition of new contracts.

October 12, 2011
4 min read

When we were first issued with our new contracts, we were confused: why change agreements that had been in place for 40 years?

Management tried their hardest to convince us it is a good thing. They told us it was a better contract, that we would benefit as employees and they are employers.

They were half right. They certainly benefit from it. We don’t.

What made us really angry was when we compared the existing and new agreements: the new agreement is about putting every single term in the employers’ favour and wording it so loosely that it can be interpreted in many different ways, none of which benefit us.

We were told if we didn’t sign we might lose our jobs so we started talking to our union, Unite, and came to the conclusion the only way forward was to walk off jobs and hold protests.

They are still saying sign or be sacked. We have no other option. It’s not just our jobs and futures on the line – it’s also the young people who come out of college wanting to be an electrician or a plumber and won’t be able to because these rogue employers are trying to wipe out such professions.

Things all started a little over two months ago when eight of the 14 major UK contractors (Balfour Beatty, Crown House, NG Baileys, T. Clarkes, MJN Colston, Gratte Brothers, Shepherds Engineering, Matthew Hall) informed their workforce of the intention to withdraw from the long-standing National Working Agreements, drawing up a new contract of employment called the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA).

As far as I can tell, the main reason for the BESNA is to save money on labour costs as this is the only expense that companies can control. They see 75% of the work currently undertaken by their highly trained employees as semi-skilled and they do not like the fact that they have to pay the same hourly rate for every task.

The new contract makes it flexible for the contractors to raise and lower employees’ pay, depending on which tasks they have been assigned. In worse case scenarios this can result in an hourly wage cut of 35%.

Here’s a few of the main points in the contract that particularly concern myself and my colleagues:

  • grading of tradesmen – currently carried out by the bodies mentioned above, the new contract puts all grading in the hands of the employer so they can raise and lower your hourly rate at any time
  • travel pay – will be dramatically cut and will also be paid at the employer’s discretion
  • overtime rates – weekend overtime rates have been dramatically cut and even receiving them is up the employer’s discretion.
  • merging of electrical and mechanical trades – they propose to remove electricians and plumbers from the equation totally, replacing them with building services engineers (whatever that is!)
  •  unfair dismissal – we’re currently able to claim unfair dismissal from our first day. That term has been removed.
  • redundancy rules – have been changed. Currently, employers are not allowed to make redundancies whilst they have agency/temporary workers engaged on their projects. This term has been removed, so no protection is given at all for employees
  • apprenticeships – there will be no more electrical and plumbing apprenticeships offered by these companies as they want to build a work force of multi-skilled workers, trained in a little bit of everything but specialising in nothing.

I could go on and on: the old agreement is more than 250 pages long. BESNA is only 48 pages, which in itself is a sign that people are going to be losing a lot. Every single term in BESNA gives all the power to the employer. They get final say on everything. Nothing is set in stone.

And that is why we’re angry, and why we’ll keep fighting until we win this campaign.

This piece was first published at http://union-news.co.uk

* JIB Electrician is the pseudonym of the author of the Electricians Against The World blog

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