Close the Gap victory tour draws to a close

Telecoms & Financial Services

We Closed the Gap! That’s the resounding message that has gone out loud and clear at BT Consumer call centres across the country in  a national celebration of the momentous victory the union has secured against the travesty of unequal pay for identical work.

Following BT’s landmark agreement to end in entirety its use of exploitative ‘Pay Between Assignment’ (PBA) agency contracts, the mass rollout of permanent BT jobs to around 1,000 agency workers in Consumer is now drawing to its climax – well in advance of the March 31 deadline for a total cessation of the use of PBA contracts across BT Group.
The company’s belated acceptance of what has, in recent years, become the central demand of the CWU’s long-running battle against an ever-mutating agency injustice, effectively spells the end of a decades-old resourcing model under which thousands of workers have been employed long-term on agency contracts with pay rates and Ts&Cs well below that of their directly employed counterparts.

The current mass rollout of permanent BT jobs in BT Consumer represent the largest single spin off of the new deal – delivering hugely enhanced job security, significantly higher pay rates, pension rights, improvements to sick pay and a raft of other benefits to all those affected.

Elsewhere in BT, a far smaller number of agency workers on PBA contracts are in the process of being switched to Agency Worker Regulations (AWR) contracts which have always delivered equal pay to that of directly employed staff conducting comparable roles after 12 weeks in a given job.

Crucially, if agency workers are hired in the future, BT will only be using AWR contracts – and the company has committed to paying equal pay from day.

As such, the CWU’s Close the Gap campaign has now fulfilled its objective within BT – good cause for a two week ‘Victory Tour’ which commenced in Leicester on October 1 and concluded in Gosforth on Tuesday (October 9).

In the interim the celebratory tour visited BT Consumer call centres in Doncaster, Warrington and Dundee. Special videos from all of the sites – including interviews with members explaining what their new BT contracts mean to them – can be viewed below.

Speaking at the conclusion of the ‘We Closed the Gap’ victory tour in Gosforth, assistant secretary Sally Bridge – who has spearheaded no fewer than four separate campaigns for agency fairness since 2006 – said: “It’s been a great couple of weeks on the road hearing direct from our members what a massive difference the offer of a BT contract has had on them.

“After so many years of intensive campaigning against agency injustice it’s heart-warming to hear first hand the very tangible benefits that so many members are now receiving from a development that would never have occurred had it not been for the dogged perseverance of the CWU.

“I’d urge anyone reading this article to view the videos from the five sites we visited – because what comes across loud and clear is not just the scale of what the CWU has achieved for so many people, but also the difference that a union can make when we really pull together and campaign collectively to address the issues that really matter to members.”

Outpouring of joy

From Leicester to Gosforth – and Doncaster, Warrington and Dundee inbetween – it was impossible not to feel the surge in morale that has accompanied the union’s Close the Gap campaign triumph.

Speaking in Warrington, Mersey Branch young workers representative Erin Brett explained: “I’ve had so many people come up to me saying they’re so thankful for what the union has done.”

Apart from the big uplift in basic pay and a better bonus package, Erin stressed that, above everything, it was the stability that permanent BT contracts provide that has most transformed the lives of individuals who have previously found it hard to secure mortgages or loans on account of the perceived instability of agency employment – even in situations where such employment has been long-term.

That was reinforced by Manpower member Gerard Coleman who is currently awaiting his BT start date after a year and a half on a PBA contract.

“Job security is something that everyone needs in their lives,” he stressed  – pointing out that has been conspicuously absent for most of his employment history to date.

“I’ve more or less done agency work for my entire working life,” he explained. “Even though my Manpower employment has been weekly paid and an agency-based contract it’s been the closest thing I’ve had to a full time job, even though I’m now in my early 30s. It’s been the first full time job that I’ve had that hasn’t been linked to a zero hour contract or supply and demand – and moving forward with a permanent contract and with monthly pay is definitely something that I’m very pleased about.”

Charlie Dunning, who has already received his BT contract, agrees. “Having a BT contract means more stability and I also now feel equal to everyone else who was already on a BT contract,” he explains

“Obviously there are other big benefits because the money is better, you get sick pay and things like that…but it’s not just about the money. I wasn’t exactly on edge before, but certainly a bit anxious thinking ‘I’m agency, and if they don’t need me they can get rid of me if they want to’ – whereas now I’m part of BT I know my job is secure.”

“Also, when you’re sat there knowing the person next to you is being paid a lot more money for doing the same job it’s kind of demotivating. Now everything is equal you feel much more motivated to come into work and give it your all.”

For fellow Warrington ‘Retentions’ adviser Imran Muhamed, who’s also just received a permanent BT contract, the opportunity to switch from agency employment after three years with Manpower could not have come at a better time.

“It provides job security which is absolutely brilliant, especially with me having a baby now – so this secures my future and the baby’s future as well.

Up in Gosforth the new BT contracts being issued to Manpower employees have proved just as welcome.

“It’s definitely boosted morale, I think as much for the BT employees as the Manpower members who are getting BT contracts. They all genuinely feel they are one team now rather than having that difference in the way they were treated with different employers, different contracts and different rates of pay – and there’s definitely an understanding that it was the union that achieved this,” explains Tyne & Wear Clerical branch chair Joanne Shaftoe.

Young workers and former Manpower rep Beth Elstob – who received her cherished BT contract last month – added: “There’s a real buzz on the call centre floor. People are being able to plan their future and the morale has improved massively but, most importantly, everyone feels equal now. It’s amazing what the CWU has achieved.”

Former agency member Paul Milburn stressed he as “over the moon” about his new BT contact.  “It means stability, a lot more money, more opportunities for overtime and a bigger bonuses as well,” he enthused.

Citing the success of the Close the Gap campaign as an example of the importance of trade union membership, Paul added: “You don’t necessarily feel empowered or have the courage to speak out on your own, especially if you are with an agency as people feel they can be got rid of in a heartbeat.”

Fellow ex-Manpower member Daniel Fawcett likened receiving his new contract to “being welcomed with open arms into a family”.

He added: “It’s quite a big jump in money but it’s also a matter of reward and recognition.

“There’s no point in lying about the fact that it’s demotivating knowing that people are doing the same job as you are for a lot more money – and also agency work is only what it is. I have a lot of responsibilities and if I was to find myself out on the street with just a few weeks notice that would be no good – so knowing I’ve got that extra job security is important.”

Admitting that making ends meet on PBA contract pay had sometimes been a struggle, Daniel added: “When I’m talking about more money I’m not referring to zeros in the bank but about how happy the kids are when I can get them a nice present on their birthday.

“I’m renting at the moment, but knowing that I’m in a better place with a bit more money and a bit more freedom means I have the opportunity now to think about getting a mortgage instead of it just being a pipe dream for the future.”

Another delighted CWU member, Ian Jackson, spoke of how his new BT contract had opened up progression opportunities that simply weren’t available as an agency employee.

Stressing that for him, however, the biggest positive of his new BT contract is the additional job security it provides, Ian concludes: “When you’re agency you always think that if anything happens you’ll be one of the first ones to go…so knowing I’m far more secure now is a very big thing for me.”