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Employment

Weetabix workers strike over fire and rehire plans to ‘cut £5,000 a year from wages’

Weetabix workers are striking for 48 hours as the company seeks to change shift and working patterns that will leave many out of pocket, despite the company seeing a 20 per cent increase in profits.

Workers at cereal giant Weetabix are going on strike over alleged “fire and rehire” tactics which could see as much as £5,000 cut from wages for some staff, according to the Unite union, as the UK faces an autumn of rising prices and increased cost of living.

Picket lines were established from 6am at Weetabix factories in Northamptonshire in the first of a series of strikes planned by members for throughout the autumn.

“Unite’s members at Weetabix will not accept being fired and rehired. Unite will fight to defend our members affected by this disgraceful practice” said Unite general secretary Sharon Graham.

“This is a totally unjustifiable assault on workers’ wages and conditions. Last year Weetabix’s profits went up by almost 20 per cent to more than £81 million”. 

A Weetabix spokesperson told The Big Issue the company was “sorry” to see the engineering team go on strike but respected their right to do so.

“It is unfair and inaccurate to compare this with other disputes that require new contracts to be signed or face dismissal,” they continued. “This is not a choice we’re considering at present. We remain in close consultation with our engineers and their representatives and are confident that the opportunity still exists to find a resolution that creates future shared success.”

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Unite claimed the 48 hour strikes will cause widespread delays to production of Weetabix as well as other products made by the factories including Alpen, Weetos and Oatibix at a time when there is growing uncertainty over food shortages caused by disruption to the UK’s supply chains.

Weetabix denied the strikes would cause delays or cause “any impact on our stock availability”.

While many firms have struggled during the pandemic, Weetabix enjoyed profits of $112.3 million, an 18.5 per cent increase on the previous year. Owners US cereal giant Post Holdings Inc most recent accounts show it had a turnover of $5.7 billion, an operating profit of $700.8 million and $1.2 billion in cash.

Fire and rehire involves an employer threatening an employee with the loss of their job if they do not sign up to new terms and conditions of an employment contract. It is typically used to impose changes on a workforce when they generally do not agree to the changes.

The TUC called for ministers to ban fire and rehire after nearly one in ten workers were reportedly affected by the tactics, but Boris Johnson declined to use May’s Queen’s Speech to outlaw the practice.

A spokesperson for The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) told the Big Issue that, while they do not comment on specific cases, they “have been very clear that using threats about firing and re-hiring simply as a negotiating tactic is completely unacceptable.”

BEIS suggested that “depending on the extent and likely impact of the proposed changes, employers should meet with affected employees, or union representatives to explain their case for making the proposed change.”

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A previous dispute between Weetabix and employees at the Burton Latimer factory was resolved after workers voted to accept changes to shift pay, after going on strike in August. 

“The government refuses to ban fire and rehire despite almost three million people having been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions since the first lockdown,” Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow employment rights and protections secretary, told The Big Issue. 

“Not only is this type of exploitative employment practice unfair on individuals it is bad for the economy.

“Weetabix should immediately withdraw the threat of fire and rehire and negotiate a deal with its workers that protects their terms and conditions.”

The pandemic has seen companies seek cost-cutting measures to stay afloat or struggle to adapt to fluctuations in demand, leading many to use fire and rehire to shoehorn employees into accepting lower paid terms . 

There is widespread agreement among the British public that the practice should be banned, according to a survey by the GMB union in May. Three quarters of respondents believed there should be legal protections for workers who are currently subject to the whims of employers who can fire staff only to rehire them with worse terms. 

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In his new deal for workers, Keir Starmer promised to ban fire-and-rehire and give rights against unfair dismissal to all workers from day one in power.

A six-month struggle between British Gas and workers over fire and rehire of around 7,000 gas engineers was finally resolved after workers backed an improved pay deal. GMB announced the deal after “gruelling negotiations” that won improvements to overtime rates and unsocial hours payments.

“Weetabix could end this dispute by simply withdrawing the attacks on workers’ pay,” said Unite regional secretary for the East Midlands Paresh Patel.

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