European Working Time Directive isn’t an ‘optional extra’, Openreach reminded, as COT anger mountsTelecoms & Financial Services, Openreach August 21 2020
Graphic: Kevin Kennedy Ryan
Friday 21st August 2020
Outrageous instances of some Openreach managers leaning on Service Delivery (SD) engineers to sign away their legal right to not be forced to work for more than 48 hours a week have prompted a furious response from the CWU.
Pointing out that the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) still applies in UK law – despite Brexit – CWU assistant secretary Davie Bowman has hit out at the fact that the CWU is even having to remind a major blue chip company about this fundamental point of employment law.
Openreach’s extraordinary lapse comes just a week after the union issued a stern warning to management not to “step over the line and endanger our members’ safety” as the company moved to invoke ‘Contractual Overtime’ (COT) on the SD workforce.
In a strongly worded communication to the union’s regional coordinators across the CWU Davie urged them to ensure full compliance with statutory working hours regulations and safe working procedures, with particular reference the dangers inherent in a Covid-19 pandemic which appears to be entering a second wave.
“We will not allow the business to place any of our members at additional risk through additional attendance,” Davie stressed last Thursday.
But with feedback from the regions (scroll down) indicating that in some areas precisely that is happening – with some managers even asking members to sign specially provided EWTD opt out forms – the union is amplifying its call to members to report any instances of coercive tactics being used by managers to force unreasonable COT demands.
CWU anger is fuelled by the fact that the union has been warning the business that the unagreed imposition of ‘Personal Travel Time’ (PTT) in post-2012 contracts potentially places those individuals perilously close to exceeding the EWTD even before COT is taken into consideration.
A further irritant, however, is that the resourcing difficulties that have triggered the latest bout of COT have been aggravated by the business’s own decision to move 150 SD engineers to the Chief Engineer’s organisation, which also has around 30 SD coaches on loan as well.
But CWU’s dismay against the company’s handling of the current demands for COT is additionally exacerbated by the fact that it is just the latest in a series of recent provocative moves by Openreach that are already straining industrial relations to brink.
These include various attacks on grading, one of which has just delivered a significant pay snub for patch leads (see story here); a full frontal attack on desk-based roles which have led to CWU warnings that “no-one is safe from compulsory redundancy” (see story here) and the question mark hanging over the future of members affected by last month’s wider-BT Group decision pull out of Aberdeen.
The present strains in Openreach come at a time of heightened industrial angst across wider BT Group with the first ever compulsory redundancies of team member grade employees that are currently underway in BT Enterprise and BT Technology triggering last month’s launch of the union’s new Count Me In campaign of resistance. (See story here)
Wider fears over job security spanning the entire company are also gathering intensity with not just the piecemeal announcement of Better Workplace site rationalisation plans by different lines of business – all ultimately feeding into BT Group’s eye-wateringly ambitions plans to consolidate all its UK operations into just 30 locations over the next four years.
Davie concludes: “These are challenging times on multiple fronts, but the present disagreement over Openreach’s handling of COT is symptomatic of a belligerent new management approach that appears be manifesting itself in multiple areas.
“The angry feedback we’ve received from those at the sharp end of the latest COT imposition is perhaps best expressed by the union’s Openreach regional coordinators, who’ve been inundated with complaints from grassroots members about the attitudes being displayed by some local managers. (See below).
“One real positive for the CWU, however, is that on the Working Time Directive issue we undisputedly have the law on our side. Members are legally entitled to be given access to their current EWTD total – which must include travel time- and regional coordinators are already reminding local managers of the statutory right of employees to refuse to carry out any overtime which would place them in breach of the EWTD.
“If anyone feels coerced or bullied to do so they must flag this up to the union without delay, and I give my absolute guarantee that any instances where managers have demonstrably stepped over the line will be stamped on immediately.”
View from the regions…
Ian Bell, Openreach regional coordinator for the North East
“Our members have expressed real anger at the third COT request in less than 12 months. In certain areas of West Yorkshire in particular, where local lockdowns are in force due to increased rates of Covid-19 infection, there is a fear that they are putting themselves and their families at further risk by having to work an extra 4 days than they would normally.
Branches have been making it clear to members that they must keep track of their hours in order to stay within the EWTD. It was therefore seen as odd, to say the least, that people were then sent the EWTD opt-out form by their managers, with some very mixed messaging. Granted, the message was later corrected to point out the voluntary nature of this option. Even so, to suggest opting out, when people are working flat out already, has not been received well by many of our members. After all, the EWTD is there to ensure people don’t overwork themselves; it’s a safety measure.
Hardworking engineers have made it clear that they feel COT is no longer the reasonable ‘last resort’ it was intended to be – instead it has become the ‘go to’ option. Yes, it’s in the contract, but is it reasonable at this time? Clearly there really needs to be an increase in resource – and soon.”
Paul Clark, Openreach regional coordinator for the South West:
“South West members have been totally dismayed by Openreach management’s approach to the current period of COT, with no real notice given in a peak holiday time. They’ve also forcefully expressed their worry about having to come in on extra days with the real threat of COVID 19 still around. Our members’ wellbeing is critical to the success of Openreach, yet at present they are all being pushed physically and mentally to the limit. With management’s total disregard to agreements across Openreach something will break. If you keep pulling feathers out of a chicken, eventually it will peck you!”
Gordon Mason, Openreach regional coordinator for East Anglia
“Members are asking a number of extremely valid questions. Why can’t they go on a 4-day week, as has been possible in previous COT periods? Why do they have to commit to another day when their Bank Holiday is refused? Again, this has not happened in previous COT periods. Why are the days worked in the March COT period, that was cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak, not being included in the commitment time for this COT period?
These are all pertinent questions, and the failure of the business to address them is stoking mistrust of managers at all levels by members who are having to bear the brunt of the G5 conspiracy and associated verbal abuse from the public.
The government have classed our members as ‘Key Workers’; it is a shame their employer doesn’t seem to share that acknowledgement.”
Anton Begley, Openreach regional coordinator for Scotland.
“My main concern during this COT period in Openreach is that our members up and down the country have given their all to assist the company and keep the company connected during the coronavirus pandemic. They have put themselves and their families at risk every day. At a time when BT Group have launched a Location Strategy to close buildings and put our members at risk of compulsory redundancy, it’s a huge ask for our members to be expected to give what little spare time they have with their families to the company. A company whose previous message to Aberdeen desk-based workers was that there is no work for them anywhere around their locality, and they could face compulsory redundancy – when other workers in the same area are being asked to work extra days due to high work volumes. This message is something we cannot support.”
Graham Colk, Openreach regional coordinator for Wales & the Marches
“The chief concern of engineers is that, as key workers, they are risking themselves and their families to keep the country connected during the Covid Pandemic. Invoking contractual overtime increases the risk for a workforce that has already given it’s all and they get nothing back from the company.
As one of our members in Wales put it to me the other day: ‘The repair workstack has risen because the company has gone for revenue over safety of employees over the last couple of months and many of us are exhausted, yet they are messing with our grading and leave and now expect us to abandon our families to get them out of the mess they created.’ As far as our members are concerned it’s all take take take, and it’s not hard to understand why.”
Stephen Eley, Openreach Regional Co-ordinator for the South East
“The engineering workforce can’t believe that this is the company’s response to all they have done during the pandemic. But worst still is when they get the message from their management that ‘they should consider themselves lucky that they still have a job!’
It would appear that BT’s ‘reward’ to its key workers for all their hard work in extraordinary difficult circumstance, putting themselves and their families at risk, is make them work even more days.”
Paul O’Hagan, Openreach regional coordinator for the North West
“The efforts that have been made to get our members to opt out of the EWTD are nothing short of despicable. I immediately accused the company direct of making a ‘calculated and cynical attempt to subvert the health and wellbeing of our members by issuing opt out forms to the top 60 highest overtime workers in an attempt to prevent the EWTD from stopping their commitment to COT’ – but in their attempt to justify what had happened they said it had just been ‘lost in translation? This, on the back of attacks on CWU members in other lines of business – and Openreach’s assault on desk-based jobs – has certainly galvanised our Openreach members in the Count Me In campaign.”