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Dark day for industrial relations in BT as talks to avert wholesale compulsory redundancies

Dark day for industrial relations in BT as talks to avert wholesale compulsory redundancies in Technology collapse.

Last ditch efforts by the CWU to avert a full scale industrial relations crisis in BT Technology have hit the buffers – with management now apparently intent on pressing ahead with multiple compulsory redundancies imminently.

Despite intensive eleventh-hour attempts by the union to exhaust every possible alternative to compulsory job losses via the introduction of an innovative ‘job swap’ arrangement, talks broke down on Monday after the company moved the goalposts on the financial package available to willing leavers volunteering to take the place of those earmarked for redundancy who do not wish to go.

The emergency discussions had been triggered by last month’s high profile direct appeal to the ultimate boss of BT Technology, Howard Watson, for proper consideration to be given to a major CWU survey of members that proved, beyond doubt, that sufficient numbers were prepared to take voluntary redundancy packages to address the staff surplus currently identified without recourse to compulsory redundancies (CRs).

For no less than three weeks detailed negotiations had  centred on the pretext that those volunteering to swap places with colleagues desperate to avoid compulsory redundancy would receive full VR terms which, dependent on length of service, can currently provide up to two years’ salary.

Yet on Friday – in a complete volte-face that left even the most seasoned CWU negotiators speechless –  the company pulled the rug from under what had always been arguably the single-most important  tenet of the talks, namely the size of the exit package available to such volunteers.

Shameful bolt from the blue…

Under the utterly unforeseen bolt from the blue, Technology  is now insisting it will only pay Voluntary Paid Leave Scheme (VPLS) terms – which only give up to a maximum of one year’s salary – effectively  pole-axing CWU hopes that a significant number of the 190 headcount reduction the business is seeking could be achieved painlessly by volunteers for VR coming forward .

That’s because the halving of maximum potential payouts will inevitably deter the vast majority of those who had indicated their interest in volunteering for VR in the CWU survey  – effectively scuppering hopes that were riding high just a week ago that Technology might have been on the verge of stepping back from the CR cliff-edge.

CWU national officer for BT Technology Sally Bridge explains: “What’s most painful of all is that, even now, I firmly believe that wholesale compulsory redundancies could have been avoided, or at the very least significantly mitigated, under the CWU’s carefully thought out counter-proposals.

“During negotiations, huge efforts had been made by the union to accommodate successive  management limitations on the extent to which any voluntarism would operate in practice -because we were always aware that the talks represented the final throw of the dice for loyal and longstanding employees who desperately do not want to be made compulsorily redundant.

“The CWU had already gone as far as it possibly could to provide the company with the ‘flexibility’  it wanted – including management discretion over the suitability of job swaps  and the definition of ‘similar roles’ that, frankly, we were uncomfortable with – but changing the fundamental terms of the package was the final hammer blow.”

Despite this appalling display of bad faith the CWU still didn’t walk away, escalating the issue to the highest possible level to see if there was any way back.

“Yesterday (Tuesday), however, Technology’s HR director Mark Murphy refused to change tack – making a complete mockery of the promise made by Howard Watson that the people we would be negotiating with would be able to make the final decision,” Sally continues.

“We’d negotiated in good faith, and had got to a stage where a deal was effectively in place – yet then new and previously unmentioned spanners were thrown into the works from upon high, rendering the whole job swap idea we’d proposed completely unworkable and meaningless.

“With Howard Watson having absented himself from any involvement whatsoever in the compulsory redundancy situation that is causing such angst and upset amongst his workforce there’s literally nowhere else for the CWU to turn.

“In good faith we’d  presented  to management a perfectly reasonable solution that could have helped avoid wholesale compulsory redundancies. Sadly, however, that idea has been reduced to nothing more than a sham by Technology’s intransigence.

“Warm sounding words on ‘voluntarism’ in stark redundancy situations  are meaningless unless they are backed up with mechanisms that allow for volunteers to take the place of  loyal employees those who don’t want to be forced out of jobs they cherish.”

Sally is adamant that, whilst management will still be rolling out the job swap process, this will now have a limited impact.

“It may save a few jobs – a handful of people may decide to take VPLS, even though it won’t be tempting to the vast majority – but it certainly won’t be the game-changer that our proposal, based upon full VR terms, would have been,” she concludes.

“The irony, of course, is that BT will still have to pay the full VR terms to staff that are being made compulsorily redundant – so doing the right thing and encouraging voluntarism by offering the same payouts to voluntary leavers wouldn’t even have borne any significant additional costs.

“BT should be ashamed.”

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