British Gas workers to strike from Thursday after restructuring talks break down

Thousands of British Gas engineers and call centre workers will down tools from Thursday as part of a national five-day strike in response to the energy giant’s “fire and rehire” plans.

The GMB trade union called the strike after 89% of its 9,000 British Gas members voted in favour of industrial action following the breakdown of talks with executives at Britain’s biggest energy supplier last year.

The union expects the majority of the 7,000 engineers and 2,000 call centre workers who are part of its membership to take part, but will limit picketing due to coronavirus restrictions.

The strike marks the end of months of tense negotiations between union representatives and energy company executives over plans to reduce the workforce and shift employees on to new contracts.

The union has accused Centrica, the embattled owner of British Gas, of “bullying” its 20,000 employees to accept worse employment contracts or lose their jobs as part of a so-called “fire and rehire” plan.

The FTSE-listed company, which has lost more than three-quarters of its market value in the last five years, said it has asked all employees to sign up to new employment contracts to help simplify the business.

A similar approach was proposed by British Airways last year, alongside staff cuts, but the airline dropped the controversial plans after negotiations with trade unions.

Justin Bowden, GMB’s national secretary, said: “British Gas boss Chris O’Shea’s attempts to bully workers into accepting cuts to their pay and terms and conditions has provoked this inevitable outcome – massive disruption to customers in the depths of winter and a stain on the reputation of an historic company and brand.”

About 7,000 frontline office workers represented by the Unison trade union accepted the energy company’s new terms last month, and 4,000 non-unionised staff also agreed to sign new contracts.

A spokeswoman for Centrica said: “We’ve done everything we can with the GMB to avoid industrial action.

“Whilst we’ve made great progress with our other unions, sadly the GMB leadership seems intent on causing disruption to customers during the coldest weekend of the year, amid a global health crisis and in the middle of a national lockdown.”

The company said it has “strong contingency plans in place” and will “prioritise vulnerable households and emergencies”.

British Gas has lost about 1 million customers in recent years due to fierce competition in the energy market from a string of cut-price energy supply startups.

As a result, Centrica reported a £1bn loss for 2019 before scrapping its shareholder dividend and warning investors there would be a steep slump in revenues in 2020.

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