Friday, September 07, 2007

Barnet Unfair

SOME employers like to show the spirit of unrepentant Scrooge is alive and well at Christmas. Thus it was just before Christmas 2006 that staff employed by Fremantle, which runs care homes and provides home carers in the London Borough of Barnet, received a letter from their employer telling them they must sign away their terms and conditions before December 31, or face the sack.

Faced with this generous offer they couldn't refuse and fearing to enter the New Year without a job, quite a few signed. But the union, UNISON, managed to call a meeting and agreed that workers should sign a letter agreeing to changes in pay and conditions, but reserving the right to protest. This was endorsed by most of the members.

But Fremantle would not accept these letters. It wanted to impose pay cuts and take away holiday rights etc, without any ifs or buts from its workers. Thus a battle began which is still rageing.

These are already low-paid workers, who take care of the elderly and vulnerable in what is still quite an affluent borough, with a Tory council. It would be difficult for them to take effective strike action and they naturally don't want to harm those they care for, though that would be the effect of what the employer is doing. There have been strikes, there have been marches, and Labour MP John McDonnell put down an Early Day Motion in Parliament.

"That this House notes that care home workers in Barnet were transferred to Fremantle under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations five years ago; notes that Fremantle has threatened to sack these employees on 1st April 2007 unless they sign new contracts worth 35 per cent. less in pay, with reduced sick pay and holiday entitlement; further notes the distress caused to residents by the potential loss of trained and known staff; supports the campaign being waged by Barnet Unison and GMB against this appalling attack on already low paid workers; and calls on the company to withdraw the threat of dismissal and restore original terms and conditions and for the Government to review employment law to prevent such abuses of public service workers in the future".

This was signed by some 50 MPs, including Rudi Vis(Finchley and Golders Green) and Andrew Dismore(Hendon), though not Tory Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet).

Still, on 1 April 2007 Fremantle Trust cut low paid care workers pay by up to 30%, telling them in effect "accept these terms or be sacked"! The cuts include lower wages, increased hours, no sick pay, shorter holidays and reduced payment for working unsocial hours. Even pensions to which contributions have been made during the workers' service are to be dramatically cut by more than one third. In response members voted to take strike action. As UNISON commented: "Care workers need to be properly trained, decently paid and most importantly, valued members of society. This is an all too familiar story of privatisation, where companies pledge to keep delivering the same service but under-cut the in-house provision by attacking the conditions of the workforce".

I hear that some workers are doing double shifts to make up their pay and fill gaps. What with loss of holidays and even sick pay, this is no way for even the most dedicated staff to stay healthy and able to maintain the level of care that they want to give.

Barnet UNISON urged supporters to e-mail messages condemning the attacks to Fremantle chief executive Carole Swayers at

and to Rod Cahill of the associated company Catalyst Housing, at

It used to be that under European law, workers' rights and conditions were supposed to be protected if their work was transferred to another employer. Apparently, not so. We remember this was also the issue in the long dispute at Hillingdon Hospital a decade ago, when domestic workers' pay and jobs were cut by the privatisers, Pall Mall, and those who resisted faced a lock-out. What we see in Barnet is that when it comes to the treatment of the workers, so-called not-for-profit outfits like Fremantle and Catalyst can be just as bad as straightforward capitalists.

Now the struggle with Fremantle has escalated. First it went international, when Unison and the pro-union internet service Labour Start asked for support for the Fremantle workers.

"Within hours, " Labour Start's Eric Lee writes to supporters, "you flooded the inbox of Fremantle's chief executive with thousands of messages. By the weekend, over 5,000 messages had been received. The reaction of the company was swift: On Friday afternoon, they fired off an email message to me threatening LabourStart with legal action, accusing us of 'libel'. (As you may know, English libel laws are biased against the defendant, and are used by corporations to attempt to suppress dissent.) A couple of days later, Fremantle got even more aggressive, and sacked Unison rep Andrew Rogers."

Barnet UNISON is demanding the reinstatement of Andrew Rogers. They say not bit of evidence was presented to show anything wrong with his work as a carer, and his dismissal was a blatant case of victimisation for his legitimate union activity.

For more on the Fremantle struggle see:

The TUC meets in Brighton next week, and Barnet Unison's John Burgess says " I will be travelling down to Brighton with Andrew and some of our Fremantle Care workers. We hope to be there for 12.30 pm". They are hoping to speak to delegates and at fringe meetings, and chave chosen Tuesday, September 11 because that is when UNISON has a motion down on privatisation.

Mwanwhile we can keep sending messages to Carolyn Sawyer at Fremantle demanding they re-instate Andrew Rogers and stop their attack on pay and conditions. (see e-mail address above) There is also an online petition to the Prime Minister drawing attention to the treatment of Fremantle workers and calling for their pay and conditions to be restored.

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