Dismay at Alness closure announcement triggers job-saving CWU counter-proposal

Telecoms & Financial Services, BT

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A detailed CWU counter-proposal has been lodged with BT Business in a bid to maintain badly needed high quality employment in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands.

Following on from the division’s shock announcement late last month that the Ardroy House and Culgraggie House sites in Alness will close on February 29 next year, the union has been grappling with the exceptional challenges presented by the customer service contact centre closures in a remote part of the country where no obvious redeployment opportunities exist.

In the eye of the storm are just over 80 CWU-represented grade employees – 23 of whom are agency workers employed on the CS workstream by Blue Arrow and the rest directly employed by BT.

All have been placed ‘at risk’ of possible redundancy in an area where alternative employment opportunities are few and far between – prompting an understandably horrified response from a close-knit community, forcefully articulated local politicians and the local media.

Under BT Business’s current proposals, the CS work currently conducted in Alness is earmarked to be moved to the division’s Better Workplace programme hub sites in Manchester or Dundee – neither of which are practicably commutable, especially on a daily basis.

Alness is around 390 miles by car from Manchester – and even the 155 mile journey to Dundee takes three hours by car or four-and-a-quarter hours by public transport.

However, faced with the very real threat to their future employment if a practical solution cannot be found, a large cohort of impacted members attending a specially convened emergency CWU members meeting last week agreed that  hybrid working involving regularly scheduled attendances at either Dundee or at BT Business’s Managed Services site at Thurso could potentially be viable.

Be flexible, BT urged…

These ideas have since been developed by the CWU’s BT Business National Team – and yesterday (Monday) the union submitted a detailed counter-proposal for a site-specific variation of BT’s Hybrid Working policy (three days in the office and two anywhere else) to a pattern that recognises the exceptional geographical challenges of Alness’s remote location.

CWU national officer Allan Eldred explains:  “The CWU’s primary aim is to mitigate as far as is possible the impact this will have on the individuals and the local community. We’re acutely aware that Alness’s location limits the availability of other roles within BT, and we also believe the proposed exit represents a reversal of BT’s commitment to the Highlands area, which has previously been valued by BT for its skilled and dedicated workforce.

“As such, we’re proposing that discussions urgently take place with a view to recognising the special circumstances of Alness and making a site-specific variation to the hybrid working policy so that the work can continue to be carried out by those currently employed on the service in Alness.

“This, for instance, could be a requirement to work from Dundee on two or three days a month, along with days when essential face-to-face team meetings or training are required – with the rest of the time, in line with the Hybrid Working policy, at a location more convenient to the individual.

“Alternatively, and perhaps more practically, arrangements could be made for people to opt work for one day per week at Thurso – which is two hours from Alness by car – again with additional attendances as required for essential team meetings and training.”

The CWU’s submission to the business continues: “We believe our counter-proposal makes sense from both the individual and business perspective, and we believe it achieves it with no detriment and some advantages to the business.

“It reduces the loss of employment in one of the remotest areas of the UK and the number of current BT people who will have to find alternative employment in an area with little and depleting employment opportunities.

“BT Business still reduces its costs by a similar if not greater amount – making savings on training costs, redundancy costs, building maintenance and the reduction in numbers that will still be achieved (via a VR exercise).

Moreover, Allan continues:  “This counter-proposal will assist in appeasing local political influences and it could even be used as reputational and brand-enhancing action, as it involves maintaining employment in an area that is starved of it.

“As such it counters recent accusations in the media, and by others, that BT is abandoning local communities by concentrating its physical presence in cities.”

CWU deputy general secretary Andy Kerr concludes: “BT Business owes it to its hard working and loyal employees in Alness to give serious consideration to this detailed CWU counter-proposal.

“Where there’s a will to do the right thing there’s generally a way of achieving it – so I’d expect careful thought to be given to these entirely workable ideas.”