Thousands of key workers in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets are considering a third round of strike action in response to the council sacking and re-employing them on contracts with inferior conditions. Imposed by Tower Hamlets Council on the 6th of July, the new contracts affect around 4,000 workers, including social and children’s services workers, and those employed in housing support, libraries and street cleaning. Branded “Tower Rewards”, the new contracts see cuts to workers’ travel allowances and flexitime, as well as a slashing of severance pay by as much as 80 percent.
Ollie Kianchehr is a children’s specialist in adult mental health and has been one of the Tower Hamlets workers on strike. He tells VICE News: “My colleagues have been out on the front line, meeting families, day to day, continuing their work, protecting children and going out and looking after people’s mental health at a time when people’s anxieties are through the roof. It just feels like a huge slap in the face for it to be happening now. It certainly doesn’t make people feel warm, enamoured or appreciated in our roles.”
Kianchehr and his colleagues have staged two rounds of strikes in protest of the changes, with socially distanced picket lines held across the borough, as well as online rallies.
This strike action comes after more than a year of negotiations between Unison, the union representing Tower Hamlets staff, and the council broke down in February. A ballot showed that 89.6 percent of Unison members in council jobs voted in favour of taking industrial action against the council. The planned strikes for March were postponed due to coronavirus, as was the council’s implementation of the new contracts. After further unsuccessful negotiations between Unison and the council at the end of June, the less favourable contracts came into place on the 6th of July. Council workers went on strike 11 days later.
Tower Hamlets Council, which is controlled by the Labour Party, says that the new contracts are a necessary part of the modernisation of staff contracts, which it says have not been revised for a decade. But the sacking and rehiring of workers on contracts with inferior terms has proved controversial during the pandemic. On the 15th of July, nine days after the new contracts were imposed in Tower Hamlets, Labour leader Keir Starmer called on Boris Johnson to “punish” British Airways for attempting to impose worse pay and conditions on 30,000 of its staff.
Kianchehr is upset at Tower Hamlets Council’s decision to implement the new contracts during the coronavirus crisis.
“The council have decided not to take a step back and think, ‘Let's defer this until a time when normality returns’,” he says. “But they’ve pushed it through at a time when it was difficult for a union to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to go on strike’. I think it’s impacted people. I’ve been to a lot of the rallies we’ve had online and spoken to members of the public, and people are shocked that they would do this at this time.” Many of those affected by the new contracts are key workers, some of whom have worked on the frontline throughout the pandemic. In July, Tower Hamlets Council encouraged residents and staff to participate in the “Clap for Carers” event – most recently on the 5th of July, when it marked the anniversary of the creation of the NHS. The new contracts were imposed just a day later, leading some workers to claim of the council: “First they clapped, and then they slapped”.
Unison Greater London regional organiser Fran Allton tells VICE News: “This is a huge blow to hard-working staff that worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic supporting the local community, only to be sacked and re-engaged on worse terms and conditions hitting those staff on lower grades hardest. Workers held off their strike action to make sure vital services continued during COVID, so it’s all the more outrageous the council pushed ahead with new contracts before the crisis is over.”
Union organisers are worried that the actions of Tower Hamlets Council could function as a blueprint for similar proposals in other cash-strapped councils across the country.
In a statement made on the 15th of July, Will Tuckley, chief executive of Tower Hamlets Council, defended the new contracts. He said: “We have now moved to the new terms and conditions which mean additional pay for around 450 staff and 1,000 more to benefit in future years, more annual leave for most staff and no job losses despite reduced budget, and two-year pay protection for the small number of staff who may be affected.”
But for Kianchehr and many of his colleagues, these assurances are not enough.
“The people that are going to benefit from the change in pay structure are those that are already in the middle to higher wage bracket,” he says. “I’m very aware that people who are earning less than me are more likely from Black and minority ethnic communities. They’re more likely to be women and life is already hard for those people.”
In recent years, Labour-run councils have been the hardest hit by the austerity measures implemented by successive Conservative governments. Research conducted by the Guardian and Sigoma, a special interest group for councils in metropolitan areas, found that of the 50 councils suffering the worst effects of austerity, 28 were Labour-run. According to another report released last year, inner city councils have faced the biggest blows to their budgets, with Tower Hamlets council seeing a 29 percent reduction in funds between 2010 and 2019.
On the question of squeezed budgets, Kianchehr believes the council is taking the wrong approach. “Labour’s role should be to oppose changes like this and practices like this,” he says. “We need pushback from Labour councils and the Labour party to say, ‘No, we’re not going to implement austerity. You need to rethink this, you need to rethink your policies’.”
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council told VICE News: “Due to government austerity and cuts in funding, we have had to save £190 million since 2010. The council is facing a funding shortfall of £35.72 million for April, May and June 2020 – the equivalent of an additional £108 per resident – due to the increased cost of responding to COVID-19, combined with a corresponding loss of income. This has led to an estimate net additional spending of £55.12 million, with the government so far only committing to provide just £19.4 million from it’s COVID-19 support grant.”
For many Tower Hamlets Council workers, the future now feels uncertain.
“The one that particularly stands out in the contracts is the changes to severance pay,” says Kianchehr says. “This has been put in place to protect staff against the cuts that are being made. If the council wants to sack its staff and sack its workforce, it would be more expensive on our existing terms and conditions. The fact that they are so determined to push through this change to make it cheaper to sack us suggests that what's coming round the corner.”
Tower Hamlets Council workers are now discussing their next move in the hope that they can roll back changes to their contracts.