THE TRANSPORT and General Workers’ Union is planning to table an emergency motion at the annual TUC conference in two weeks’ time calling for a change in Britain’s labour laws to outlaw the underhand practices of the airline caterer Gate Gourmet.
The union then hopes to take the struggle forward to the Labour Party conference next month. It is determined to put the Government and current labour law in the spotlight following one of the most bitter industrial disputes of recent years.
Relations between the TGWU and US-owned Gate Gourmet deteriorated last week after chairman Dave Siegel accused 200 of the 667 employees sacked after unofficial industrial action last month of being militants.
At the same time the union claimed the company had backtracked on a deal over redundancy terms. Gate Gourmet is now refusing to reinstate 200 of the sacked workers, claiming that they are “militants” – after the company had agreed to offer reinstatement or a generous voluntary redundancy package to its entire Heathrow staff.
“Siegel’s comments are offensive. It is nonsense to describe our members as militants. Mainly he is talking about middle-aged Asian women,” said TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley.
He also said: “The Gate Gourmet scandal has highlighted a number of important areas where employment law is tilted towards bad employers and against the legitimate rights of workers.
“We are going to be giving the Government no rest until these issues are addressed.”
A TGWU officer said the union’s focus was on two specific areas where it believed employment law was ineffective. First: “We believe that they prepared for and provoked an industrial dispute in order to sack workers.”
He said that were it proved that a company provoked unofficial industrial action; employees involved should have the same protection as workers striking legitimately. Such workers cannot be dismissed for 12 weeks after the action.
The move comes in response to revelations last month that Gate Gourmet had such a plan, and referred to it in leaked internal documents. The company did not deny it had considered the option, but said it had decided against exercising it.
The second area involves drafting in temporary workers on lower pay than full-time employees, particularly when there are plans for redundancies.
This issue could fall under the EU directive on agency labour. A third point covers solidarity action – also known as secondary action – an issue that is raised annually at TUC.
Secondary action is illegal in the Britain but the TGWU believes it is legitimate in some cases where staff at a parent company strike in support of employees providing services to that company via a sub-contractor.
Meanwhile Gate Gourmet is being investigated over allegations that it deceived British Airways about the cost of catering on its flights and operated a tax dodge.
A former supplier to Gate Gourmet has accused the company of making it sign a contract under which it made payments to the company’s European headquarters in Switzerland. Under the contract, Gate Gourmet received a “rebate” of £90,000 for every £3 million it paid to the supplier, Nesco Foods, of Feltham, near Heathrow. Gate Gourmet was allegedly able to take advantage of lower tax rates by receiving the money in Zurich.