Labour councillors issue open letter against Tower Rewards scheme as strike action begins

The contract changes affect staff working across Tower Hamlets Council. Picture: Mike Brooke

The contract changes affect staff working across Tower Hamlets Council. - Credit: Mike Brooke

Ten Tower Hamlets councillors have called on mayor John Biggs to scrap contract changes for council staff.

Unison members have walked out today (Friday, July 3) in what is set to be the first of three days of strike action over the planned introduction of the Tower Rewards scheme that would essentially see staff sacked and rehired with new contracts.

The council has said that its terms and conditions for staff had not been updated for more than a decade and a spokesperson described them as “out of date” and “inconsistent” - which was why it had sought to bring in the new package.

And now 10 councillors - all members of the Labour party - have issued an open letter expressing solidarity with the striking staff.

The letter states: “We believe that the use of Section 188, essentially sacking all staff and expecting them to come back to work upon the imposed terms and conditions, is unjustified.

“We are concerned that the unions have been unable to independently verify the Equalities Impact Assessment for the Tower Rewards scheme made available to them.

“As Labour councillors, we believe in the right of workers, particularly workers so vital to our borough, to determine the terms and conditions of their work through collective agreement. In a borough with such high levels of poverty and inequality we think most local residents will agree.”

Most Read

It has been signed by councillors Shah Ameen, Shad Chowdhury, Marc Francis, Ehtasham Haque, Tarik Khan, James King, Ayas Miah, Victoria Obaze, Mohammed Pappu and Gabriela Salva Macallan.

The group also called on the council to withdraw their plans for implementation - set to take place on Monday, July 6 having been delayed from April due to the pandemic - and re-enter negotiations.

The letter added; “Throughout the development of the Tower Rewards scheme, we have been concerned by the lack of political engagement, both within Labour Group and with the unions.

“The conditions of our council’s workers are not just an administrative matter. The basis upon which council staff are employed is vital to how services for residents are shaped.”

Mayor John Biggs said he was “disappointed” by the strike action, adding: “For the past 18 months the council has worked to seek collective agreement on changes to our contracts. During that time, management have made significant changes to the package in consultation with staff, and around 1,300 staff have already opted into the new contract, far more than voted for this strike.”

He also defended the new scheme, saying: “The Tower Rewards package invests an extra £2.3 million in pay and conditions, increases annual leave for many staff, introduces a new rent deposit scheme and increases special leave for staff facing bereavement or domestic abuse. Withdrawing the package now would mean staff missing out on these.

“To fund the increases in pay the package reduces the £1.7 million we currently spend each year on severance payments, on top of our enhanced redundancy package. I understand that Unison are unhappy about this change but with ever tightening budgets it is hard to argue that spending £1.7 million a year on severance is the best use of taxpayer money.”

Unison has criticised the new scheme, with a spokesperson saying: “There is nothing modern about the proposals.

“Instead, they will increase inequality, weaken our rights and make all of our jobs more vulnerable.”

As many as 4,000 employees from a range of council departments are expected to go on strike across the three days, with socially distanced picket lines being set up outside several venues across the borough.

Tower Hamlets chief executive Will Tuckley said: “We have put measures in place to ensure our residents and businesses remain supported at a time when they need us the most.

“With changes to digital technology, working patterns and devices, the way people access services and live their lives has changed at a rapid rate over the past decade. Every organisation needs to change to meet the needs of their customers and their workforce.

“On top of that, our budgets have been significantly impacted by the pandemic so it is important we make the most of the money we have. That includes investing in our existing staff rather than those who leave and raising salaries for hard to fill roles such as social workers.”