Hundreds of ‘devastated’ British Gas engineers who have lost their jobs today vented their fury after they refused to sign up to tougher employment terms under a controversial ‘fire and rehire’ scheme which has cast a shadow over chief executive Chris O’Shea’s first year in office.
The energy supplier, which is one of the UK’s Big Six, handed dismissal notices to around 1,000 engineers who install and repair boilers and heating systems for the company’s nine millions service customers, on April 1 amid a bitter row over pay and working conditions.
Employees who had refused to sign up to tough new contracts forcing them to work longer hours and face cuts to higher pay rates for working over weekends and bank holidays were granted a two-week grace period in which to either change their minds or lose their jobs.
Parent company Centrica, which currently employs around 20,000 people in the UK, announced plans last summer to cut hundreds of jobs and change the terms of existing contracts using a controversial ‘fire and rehire’ tactic that has infuriated unions.
Under the new contracts, full-time engineers would be required to work an extra three hours a week, or 40 hours a week in total, and would not be paid a higher rate to work when required on weekends and bank holidays.
Though the terms were accepted by most trade unions and employees, the GMB has staged more than 40 days of strike action in recent months in protest against the ‘mass sacking’ of its members and said British Gas ‘should be ashamed’ of the treatment of its workers.
In the last two weeks, hundreds of engineers had agreed to the new deals. However, it is understood around 500 engineers had still refused to agree to the new terms by the end of Tuesday, with between 300 and 400 people who did not sign by midday today set to lose their jobs.
The British Gas owner claimed the changes were needed to protect jobs as it tried to shore up its market position while battling to compete with rivals after sinking to a £362million loss last year amid increasing competition and the volatility caused by the pandemic.
However, dozens of those who lost their jobs today took to social media to condemn the actions of British Gas, with one former employee writing: ‘I won’t sign an inferior contract.’
British Gas engineers have shared their fury as hundreds today lost their jobs after refusing to sign up to tougher employment terms under a ‘fire and rehire’ scheme
Another engineer, who worked with the company for 20 years, said the only ‘thanks’ they received was a demand for the return of his ‘two-year-old honking work shoes’ and van.
Debbie Tinsley said: ‘So by this time tomorrow I, along with many others, will be fired by British Gas. What have we done wrong? Absolutely nothing.
‘We just didn’t agree to their new contract that would make us work longer hours for less pay. Thirty years of loyal service counts for nothing.’
Daniel Caie added: ‘It’s my last day at British Gas today. I’m getting dismissed for not signing their new contract.
‘So big thank you’s to: The Inverness & Elgin team for being sound and sharing vital experience throughout my 10 years.
‘The BG Twitter community for giving it a hell of a fight.’
Those who chose not to sign the divisive new contracts were applauded by Ed Miliband, who said he was ‘proud to support the British Gas workers who are taking a stand against unacceptable ‘fire and rehire’ tactics.’
Taking to Twitter, he added: ‘Boris Johnson said that ‘fire and rehire’ was unacceptable, but he’s done nothing about it. The government needs to act now.’
Nadia Whittome, Labour MP for Nottingham East, said: ‘Today British Gas fires hundreds of its workers.
Andy Prendergast, GMB acting national secretary, told the Guardian that many of its 8,000 engineers had agreed to the terms while allegedly ‘under duress’.
The GMB claimed that workers had been ‘let down by successive regimes of mismanagement’, and thundered: ‘Our members have done everything they’ve been asked, always on the promise that this will lead to prosperity – but it hasn’t.’
GMB national secretary Justin Bowden told the Morning Star: ‘That British Gas doesn’t give a toss for either its customers or staff is evidenced by the mass sacking of the engineers that it badly needs to service these customers.
British Gas workers who are members of the GMB union go on strike in Windsor in January
Dozens of those who lost their jobs today took to social media to condemn the actions of British Gas, with one former employee writing: ‘I won’t sign an inferior contract’
‘Why? They wouldn’t sign new contracts that would make their lives worse.
‘Companies shouldn’t be able to do this. Fire and rehire should be illegal.
‘Solidarity to those affected. Time to change the law.’
The GMB Union today insisted British Gas should be ‘ashamed of themselves’ for their use of the controversial scheme.
‘Whilst there is sadly nothing to stop a company bullying its own staff to sign terms they don’t accept, and sacking those who won’t submit to bullying, GMB members will not accept the outcome of this nine-month campaign of British Gas bullying.’
Under the updated contracts, full-time British Gas engineers are required to work an additional three hours per week to 40 hours in total. They will also not be paid a higher rate when asked to work on weekends and Bank Holidays.
Politicians are among those who have called for the ‘fire and hire’ scheme to be scrapped
The terms sparked furious opposition in recent months, with the GMB Union staging more than 40 days of strike action to protest what it dubbed the ‘mass sacking’ of staff.
Centrica today said it achieved ‘collective agreement’ with the majority of unions other than GMB over the terms following two rounds of talks which began in July last year.
It added that the ‘vast majority’ of their 7,000 members have signed.
A spokesman for Centrica told MailOnline: ‘There is a job for everyone at the end of this process. We are changing the way we work to give our customers the service they want and protect the future of our company and 20,000 UK jobs.
‘Today marks the end of the period for our employees to sign new contracts. These are highly competitive, and our changes are reasonable.
‘Around 98 per cent of the entire company has accepted and we hope the remaining, also sign and choose to stay.
Those who chose not to sign the divisive new contracts were applauded by Ed Miliband, who said he was ‘proud to support the British Gas workers who are taking a stand against unacceptable ‘fire and rehire’ tactics’
‘We have not cut base pay or changed our generous final salary pensions. Our gas service engineers remain some of the best paid in the sector, earning £40,000 a year minimum.
‘While change is difficult, reversing our decline which has seen us lose over three million customers, cut over 15,000 jobs and seen profits halved over the last 10 years is necessary.
‘The changes will also unlock our ability to grow jobs and hire 1000 green apprentices over the next two years.’
Mr O’Shea previously revealed how his wife and son were sent a package of excrement with a note referring to the nine-month long dispute.
‘I know this puts a lot of pressure on people,’ he told MPs in February. ‘Only yesterday, my wife and teenage son had a package of excrement delivered to them with a note about ‘fire and rehire’. This is something that affects absolutely everybody; I’m not immune to this.’
It comes after Centrica revealed its annual underlying earnings had plunged by nearly a third as it shed more customers and was hit by the pandemic and warmer weather.
The Windsor-based group, which reported a 31 per cent drop in underlying operating profits to £447million for 2020, lost nearly 165,000 customers last year.
Scandal that’s made your blood boil! Pensioners left without heating, vital boiler repairs delayed… the shocking stories British Gas bosses MUST read
By BEN WILKINSON AND FIONA PARKER FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Scores of abandoned British Gas customers say they have paid the price of blind loyalty to costly boiler cover plans.
Money Mail has now received around 100 letters and emails from fed-up policyholders who are spending hundreds of pounds a year on boiler and heating insurance but still can’t get an appointment for repairs in good time.
We have compiled a dossier of your letters and today sent them to British Gas boss Chris O’Shea, asking that he investigates and pays refunds where necessary.
The stories include that of a 97-year-old woman who was told to wait three weeks for her boiler to be fixed; and a pensioner who was left without heating in winter.
Fuming: We have now received around 100 letters and emails from fed-up policyholders who are paying for boiler and heating insurance but still can’t get an appointment for repairs
Last week, we told how 170,000 HomeCare customers were facing long delays for routine services and repairs. Today we reveal that:
- British Gas’s services arm — which includes HomeCare — made a £256million profit last year.
- The bumper profit came despite this section of the business losing 122,000 customers in the same year.
- Loyal customers are also being hit with spiralling premiums, with new policyholders paying as little as a quarter of the amount paid by those who have been with British Gas for more than a decade.
- Boiler cover might not be worth the money for nine in ten households.
- HomeCare customers who can only afford to pay monthly are charged more than those who pay for a year upfront.
- Complaints about British Gas services soared by 64 per cent in 12 months.
British Gas has more than 3.5million HomeCare customers, who pay for insurance to cover the cost of boiler repairs and annual services.
They can also choose to spend more to cover extras such as home electrics, drains and plumbing.
Yet lockdown restrictions and recent strike action by engineers have meant many customers are being told they must wait weeks for an appointment, leaving some elderly and vulnerable people without hot water or heating for days.
Money Mail has heard from scores of fed-up customers who cannot get through to the utility giant on the phone, or who have been let down by engineers failing to show up. Some have even had to wait two years for their annual boiler service.
British Gas, which disputes union GMB’s claim that more than 170,000 homes are waiting for repairs, says it hopes to clear its backlog of service delays shortly, now that it has resumed non-essential jobs.
Trust: British Gas has more than 3.5million HomeCare customers, who pay for insurance to cover the cost of boiler repairs and annual services
I was left talking to a robot
Elizabeth Douton with husband Carlos
Elizabeth Douton, 79, says it is almost impossible to speak to a fellow human being when she telephones British Gas.
The retired receptionist and her husband, Carlos, 82, recently spent two months trying to have their faulty boiler repaired.
They have been HomeCare customers for more than three decades and paid £273 when they renewed for this year’s cover.
But it took three visits by engineers to fix the problem — and each time, Elizabeth had to do battle with British Gas’s dreaded automated phone system.
Elizabeth, who lives in Birmingham, submitted a formal complaint to British Gas but was told that it would take eight weeks before she would receive a reply.
‘I have had to ring up HomeCare on multiple occasions but most of the time it is impossible to speak to someone,’ says Elizabeth, a great-grandmother of seven. ‘You just don’t feel you are getting the service you deserve.’
Cost does not always add up
Recent research from consumer group Which? found that nine out of ten households would be better off if they ditched boiler cover and instead paid for repairs and services as and when they needed them.
Half of the customers surveyed said they had needed their boiler fixed at some point in the past five years, paying an average of £107.
But with a typical annual service costing about £80, the combined cost was still £101 cheaper than the average boiler cover premium of £288.
More than a third said their boiler hadn’t broken down at all in the past five years — meaning they could save a total of £3,000 if it survived for a further five.
The basic HomeCare One package, which includes an annual boiler service and repairs, now costs a new customer £14 a month if they are willing to pay a £60 excess on claims.
The full HomeCare Four deal, which includes cover for drains, heating and plumbing, costs £23 a month — or £38 if you want to avoid excess charges. But if you can afford to pay for the whole year upfront, the overall cost is cheaper by £12.
Some HomeCare customers have also told Money Mail that delays and problems in booking an appointment mean they cannot get an annual service every year.
Told to wait in the cold at 97
Three week wait: Beryl Farnsworth with her son Graham and family
Beryl Farnsworth, 97, lives on her own and has a heart condition.
When her boiler broke down, British Gas said she would have to wait three weeks for an engineer.
Beryl’s son, Graham, had signed the widow up to HomeCare 15 years ago and she pays £360 a year for cover.
However, when Graham, 75, called the British Gas helpline, an automated message could only offer an appointment for April 22.
He waited for 15 minutes to speak to an adviser, who at first said the visit could not be pushed forward.
But eventually the employee spoke to his manager, and an appointment was arranged for the next day.
Graham, who lives near Beryl in Lincoln, believes his vulnerable mother would not have been able to argue her own case without his help.
Last week, British Gas informed the great-great-grandmother that it would be hiking her fees by £20 — but she will not be renewing her cover.
‘I just couldn’t believe that they thought it was acceptable to leave a 97-year-old for three weeks in a cold home,’ says Graham.
The ‘loyalty penalty’ trap
And while new customers can pay as little as £264 for the HomeCare Four package, Money Mail has spoken to some households now paying more than £1,100.
New customers are also currently being offered gift cards worth up to £75 if they sign up before May 10.
City watchdog the Financial Conduct Authority wants to put a stop to the so-called ‘loyalty penalty’ that means long-term customers pay far more than new ones.
Under the regulator’s proposals, firms will be free to set prices for new customers but banned from raising fees over time — other than in line with changes to a customer’s risk.
However, these changes are largely aimed at the car and home insurance markets, and it is understood that boiler cover policies will not be affected.
It took 15 months to fix radiators
Abandoned: Jill Attfield has been a Homecare customer for 20 years
When faulty radiators left the first floor of her guesthouse without heating in January last year, Jill Attfield called British Gas.
The widow, 74, from Dorking, pays the firm £1,111 a year for its most expensive HomeCare plan. But it would be 15 months before British Gas resolved the radiator blockage.
In that time, four appointments were cancelled and rescheduled, while on other occasions engineers would arrive with the wrong equipment.
Her floorboards have been pulled up seven times and she has spent £1,000 on fan heaters for her guests.
Jill, who has had HomeCare for 20 years, says: ‘I feel totally let down.
‘I just couldn’t believe it when I saw the HomeCare adverts on television. Why are they trying to get more customers when they can’t look after the ones they already have?’
But firms enjoy bumper profits
Accounts for Centrica, which owns British Gas, show that services such as HomeCare made the company a £256million profit last year — up £4million on 2019.
The report reveals that British Gas lost 122,000 services customers in 2020 — 3 per cent of its total. In the past decade, the firm has lost a million customers.
Mr O’Shea, the chief executive of Centrica, earned £659,000 last year, up from £620,000.
Company accounts say his salary is £250,000 less than his predecessor’s, though — and Mr O’Shea also waived £100,000 of his annual salary in 2020 ‘in the context of the difficult choices he made to safeguard the business and colleagues’.
The report also claimed the company managed to fulfil more than 97 per cent of essential breakdown appointments, ‘despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic’.
The energy giant said it had to cancel all but essential jobs in the third national lockdown, including most boiler services.
A message on the HomeCare website now reads: ‘As restrictions start to ease, we’re able to help customers with non-essential jobs again.
‘However, please bear with us whilst we get back to normal – we’re also working really hard to catch up on appointments we had to cancel over the winter due to the pandemic.’
But homeowners turning their backs on British Gas have told Money Mail they are tired of the pandemic being used as an excuse for delays.
Ongoing strike action from engineers over pay and conditions is also understood to have played a part in the chaos.
You have YOUR say
We have had a HomeCare plan since 1986 and until two years ago, we were very happy with it.
However, our boiler now hasn’t been serviced since June 2019. We had an appointment booked for October 2020, but it was cancelled.
K. H., by email.
Thank you for highlighting the inefficiency of British Gas’s HomeCare cover. The energy giant should pay compensation to customers it has been taking money from over the past year.
C. N., Radstock, Somerset.
I took out HomeCare in 2010 when my husband died. In 11 years, I’ve only had to call British Gas once – in January this year. I was plunged into such chaos and inefficiency, I wish I hadn’t.
R.W., by email.
My aunt, 99, pays £28 a month for the service, but when her boiler failed on Easter Sunday she was told she’d have to wait until Tuesday for an appointment.
Eventually, British Gas said we could book a local engineer and it would pay the bill.
P. B., Lincolnshire.
We normally have to wait 15 months for our boiler to be serviced through HomeCare.
This means that over a four-year period, we lose one service. If this is the case with all customers, it must amount to a large saving for British Gas.
M. C., Aylesbury, Bucks.
The firm blames Covid-19 for delays. But I have had to fight for an engineer to visit me for several years now.
G. B., Romsey, Hants.
I pay about £90 a month for HomeCare. My boiler was last serviced in 2019, but when I rang to book an appointment last week, I was told non-essential services were not available.
O. F., Newport.
My husband and I are pensioners. When we needed an engineer, we were told we would have to wait three weeks for an appointment.
P. K., by email.
British Gas takes £35 a month from my account, even though it does not provide the promised service.
I first contacted the firm in February when a radiator wasn’t working. In the end I phoned a local company yesterday, and they came out today.
M. D., Solihull.
Complaints are mounting
Complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service about British Gas Services Ltd have risen by 64 per cent in a year, from 263 in the 2019/20 financial year to 432 in 2020/21.
One couple took British Gas to the ombudsman last year after the firm took 36 days to fix their fridge and 78 days to repair their dishwasher.
The ombudsman ruled in the customers’ favour and ordered the energy firm to pay them £150 in compensation.
British Gas was also ordered to pay £100 compensation to one customer who had no heating or hot water but was told to wait nine days for a repair.
The homeowner, who had been paying £340 a year for HomeCare cover, cancelled his policy and hired a local tradesman – yet British Gas only offered him a £16 refund.
British Gas says it has now carried out appointments for all customers featured in our case studies in the panel to the right.
A spokesman adds: ‘We’re sorry we’ve had to rearrange some appointments, such as annual service visits, primarily driven by our response to the Covid-19 lockdown — this is in order to safeguard the health and safety of our staff and customers — but we aim to do these as soon as we can.
‘During the lockdown we have focused on emergencies with immediate threat to health, life or safety, including heating breakdowns and uncontrollable water leaks.’