British Gas engineers strike against a background of problems in the industry
By Pat Turnbull
Throughout the pandemic, gas engineers have continued to risk their health and even their lives, and
those of their families, entering people’s homes to carry out repairs and services. Yet instead of getting the appreciation they deserve, workers in the gas industry find themselves in the forefront of the struggle against attacks by British Gas on wages and working conditions using the ‘fire and rehire’ tactic. Around 7,000 British Gas employees who are members of the GMB union have stood firm in a long series of strikes. The campaign started in July 2020 when British Gas announced that employees in the field staff bargaining group who refused to accept 15% cuts in pay rates and other changes would be sacked. On April 14, the engineers took their 43rd day of strike action which was the date set by British Gas for sackings with pay in lieu of notice if they did not sign the new contracts. True to their word British Gas went ahead with mass sackings on that date. A national lockout dispute between British Gas and GMB then became effective with action continuing. (British Gas engineers to strike on April 14 - new date they face mass sackings | GMB)
GMB members voted by an overwhelming 89% ‘yes’ vote for strike action. Centrica’s claims of poverty ring false. Centrica PLC recorded a group wide operating profit of £901 million in 2019, and an adjusted operating profit of £229 million for the six months to 30 June 2020 – up 27% on the same period in the previous year. (GMB announce new British Gas strike dates | GMB) The union says that four members of the Centrica board have between them earned £37 million from their jobs outside Centrica since 2015. (British Gas board millionaire's club must rein in CEO over fire and rehire | GMB) On 12/3/21 the GMB reported that 270,000 households were in the backlog for repairs and there were 400,000 homes where planned annual service visits had been axed.
British Gas Services Ltd and British Gas New Heating Ltd, subsidiaries of Centrica, serve 12 million homes in the UK and are the biggest energy supplier in the country. The Gas Act 1948 passed by the Attlee government nationalised the UK gas industry, previously made up of 1,062 privately owned and municipal gas companies. The Gas Act 1986, however, privatised the company and on 8 December 1986 it floated on the London stock market as British Gas plc. Shares were sold at 135p with the company valued at £9 billion. In February 1997 British Gas plc demerged from the company and became the separate British Gas Group. The gas sales, gas trading, services, retail businesses and the gas production business of the North and South Morecambe gas fields, were transferred to Centrica, which continues to own and operate the British Gas retail brand. British Gas is one of around 60 energy suppliers that provide gas and electricity to homes across the UK.
Energy UK (trade association for the industry) gave a run-down in 2019 of where the UK gets its gas. Production in the North Sea and Irish Sea typically provides around 40 per cent of gas supplies, but is in decline. The rest is supplied by four pipelines from continental Europe and Norway and LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) which is shipped in from around the world. Britain has three LNG import facilities capable of meeting nearly 50 per cent of annual demand.
The National Careers Service web site suggests that a gas installation/gas maintenance engineer earns an average salary of £12,000 - £38,000 and can expect to work 41 to 43 hours a week, including evenings, weekends and bank holidays. It lists a variety of ways to qualify, including college courses, apprenticeships, and assessment of experience by a professional body. As an example, Logic 4 training, advertising its services online, says it will cost £5750 plus VAT to train with them to become a gas engineer from scratch. By law all gas businesses must be on the Gas Safe Register, which replaced CORGI (Council for Registered Gas Installers). More than 120,000 gas engineers are certified on the Gas Safe Register.
The Gas Safe Register’s last Decade Review, published November 2017, provides some insights into the industry and the views of those who work in it. As well as organising a wide range of focus groups and interviews with different ‘stakeholders’, the report’s compilers sent their engineer survey to 71,870 Gas Safe Register contacts. They got 2,814 responses, 96 per cent of them from engineers. The UK has 21.5 million gas powered homes. The median age for engineers is 55, with the average age being around 46. While there are large employers like British Gas, most gas engineers are self-employed sole traders. A fee has to be paid to Gas Safe Register for or by each engineer. Engineers and others who responded to the register’s request for comments suggested a need for more control of training and competence, or restricting the right to sell gas appliances to registered engineers, but these areas are outside the control of both the Gas Safe Register and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The report says: ‘Gas Safe Register and HSE would need more resources or wider powers of investigation to enable them to deal with the root of some safety issues’ and mentions ‘public-spending austerity’ adding ‘…restricting trade sales is not something that Gas Safe Register or HSE could enforce within their remits’.
Given the majority of engineers are self-employed, it is not surprising that the burden of keeping up with new technology figures prominently in comments - 70% of participants mentioned it. An example is combustion testing, which was mandated by boiler manufacturers in 2014 when commissioning condensing boilers. This was generally regarded as useful but it required ‘an expensive piece of kit’ to perform the analysis. 60% mentioned increased legislation. One engineer commented that there might be “five pages of new regulations” in each issue of Gas Safe Register’s magazine. The number of boiler manufacturers is another problem.
Engineers were concerned at the low number of inspections that Gas Safe Register carries out, as its focus is on high-risk engineers. The report says: ‘the availability of inspectors and the Register’s risk-based inspection process, which means fewer engineers are inspected than before, is the chief criticism of Gas Safe’s registration model’. The review says: ‘Businesses of all sizes express some frustration that they are subsidising less competent and even illegal installers because registration fees help to fund Gas Safe Register’s investigations and inspections.’ Engineers were also concerned at people using short cuts to join the trade. The Nationally Accredited Certification Scheme (ACS) for Gas Fitting Operatives requires experienced gas engineers to gain a certificate of competence every five years to maintain registration with Gas Safe Register. This is a problem in itself, as it costs approximately £749 and takes between 8 and 40 hours, stopping the engineer during this period from being available for work. (Options Skills web site) But it is also in recent years being used as a pathway into the industry, mainly because it is unclear what defines ‘experience’ to access ACS.
Gas engineers feel pressure to do work more cheaply, a pressure increased by illegal gas fitters who are forcing prices down. But on the other hand, the reluctance of younger people to undertake long courses or apprenticeships is also understandable; they want to start earning as quickly as possible. As the report says: ‘less scrupulous, less thorough training companies [are] providing faster, cheaper qualifications’. A frustrated gas engineer gives an example of the problem: “I come across it every day; these six-week wonders are guessing how to install gas appliances. I challenged one recently…and he shouted back at me: ‘Don’t have a go at me, I was stacking bananas at Asda six weeks ago.’” The importance of apprenticeships was mentioned repeatedly, but funding is lacking. The government portrays gas as a declining industry. With the number of self-employed in the industry – ‘one man and a van’ – it is unrealistic to expect them to train up apprentices; ‘all they’re doing is training a competitor’. The report also says: ‘a recurrent theme was wanting Gas Safe Register to put more emphasis on support and help, rather than policing the workforce.’
If plans to deal with climate change are carried through, the gas industry will not have a long-term future, adding further pressure to those who work as engineers. In the UK, installations of new gas boilers, unless they are hydrogen-ready, will be phased out by the mid-2030s as part of the government’s ‘decisive shift’ away from fossil fuel. Instead a low-carbon heating system, or an appliance that can be converted to use clean fuel, will need to be installed. Heat pumps or hydrogen-ready boilers are possible candidates. Gas and oil boilers currently make up more than 90% of the UK’s heating stock. New homes built from 2025 are also supposed to be zero-carbon ready. (Which? New gas boiler installations banned by mid-2030s, 16/12/20) Replacing all these gas heating systems is a huge task. How committed is the government to providing the necessary funding, or will it be billed to the private customer, or the tenant in the form of rent rises? An article from 2018, Kick-Starting the Decarbonisation of Heat, on the Energy UK web site, says: ‘Clean Growth Strategy allocated a low amount of resource to the decarbonisation of heat (£227m in confirmed funding compared to the £3.5bn allocated to transport) showing an apparent lack of commitment to solving the issue.’
A planned and well-financed approach could see gas engineers retrained to install and maintain the new types of heating, but the question is, will that happen, or will yet another group of highly trained and skilled workers find themselves out of a job?