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Trouble brewing at coffee firm over ‘fire and rehire’

Written by: Emma Lunn
The entire workforce at Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE) in Banbury face losing their jobs if they refuse to sign new contracts that could see them lose up to £12,000 a year.

Union Unite says the decision to issue dismissal notices to the 291 coffee workers is ‘corporate gangsterism’.

The union said that it would be escalating industrial action with four new strike days at the Ruscote Avenue site after the company said those employees who didn’t sign up to the new contracts by 17 May would be issued with 12 weeks’ notice, effective from 7 June.

The strikes will run from 07.00 Saturday 5 June until 07.00 Sunday 6 June; from 06:00 Thursday 10 June until 07:00 Friday 11 June; from 07:00 Sunday 13 June until 07:00 Monday 14 June; and from 06:00 on Wednesday 16 June until 07:00 Thursday 17 June.

Joe Clarke, Unite national officer for the food industry, said: “The company has today announced its notice to dismiss the entire workforce by using unscrupulous ‘fire and rehire’ tactics. This move comes on the back of an unprecedented level of commitment by our members throughout the Covid crisis keeping the nation supplied with coffee, as demand soared by an estimated 40%.

“We can only describe the company’s greed-driven approach as a result of a culture of corporate gangsterism by this highly profitable Dutch-owned company. We will now escalate strike action in the weeks ahead until the company withdraws these notices and enters into constructive dialogue with Unite to chart a way forward that does not cause economic and social havoc to Banbury and the wider economy.

“We strongly dispute JDE’s claim that half of the affected workers will be £4,000 better off on average – we stand by our position that the new contracts could see some of our members lose up to £12,000 a year in pay – and, in some cases, their homes.”

Unite represents the 291 workers whose jobs are under threat and, so far, there has been a 72-hour strike and two 24-hour strikes, as well as a continuous overtime ban that has been in place since 1 May.

The union is running a national campaign to get the government to outlaw ‘fire and rehire’. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) recently found that one in 10 workers had been threatened with fire and rehire during the pandemic. Unions fear this number will grow dramatically as furlough ends unless the law is changed.

Other companies who have pressured staff to sign new contracts or lose their jobs include Weetabix and British Gas.

Howard Beckett, Unite assistant general secretary for politics and legal, said: “It’s quite clear that the public is firmly on the side of working people when it comes to the horrific practice of fire and rehire.

“There is no grey area here. They see that this is an objectionable practice that should be banned. The government has to get on the same page as voters on this and fast.”

A JDE UK spokesperson said: “Over the past five months we have repeatedly tried to negotiate with the union on changes to working practices at our factory in Banbury. They have been unwilling to discuss the terms of the proposals or provide any viable suggestions to modernise.

“As a result, we have been left with no choice but to issue notices of dismissal and re-engagement to those associates who have not voluntarily signed up to the new terms through individual consultation.

“We are very disappointed that it has come to this stage, but change is desperately needed to secure a future for the factory which is 20 to 40% more expensive than other JDE factories in Europe. The changes involve bringing our shift patterns in line with industry best practice which we have benchmarked both internally and externally.”

JDE claim that half of workers affected by new working hours will be £4,000 a year better off while those who are financially impacted will receive compensation. It said the £12,000 figure quoted by Unite only applied to “a handful” of workers.

JDE also challenged Unite’s claim that the fire and rehire threat affected the entire workforce at the factory. The coffee firm said it only applied to workers who haven’t “voluntarily signed up to the new terms and conditions through individual consultation”. It confirmed that those employees who hadn’t signed up by 17 May would be issued 12 weeks’ notice effective from 7 June.

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