It was the chosen tool of British Airways when it tried to force workers to accept contracts that would see them suffer pay cuts of around 25 percent last year.
The problem is widespread. The TUC union federation found that 9 percent of workers have been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions since last March.
Nearly a fifth of 18-24 year olds say their employer has tried to rehire them on inferior terms during the pandemic.
And twice as many black and minority ethnic workers have been faced with fire and rehire as white workers.
While fire and rehire is not a new tool— it was used, for example, by bosses at supermarket Asda in 2019— coronavirus has ushered in a new wave of its use.
Many firms face a squeeze on their profits. To restore them, bosses are bullying workers and using the threat of unemployment to force them to accept worse contracts.
Others, even though they are profitable, see a chance to ram through assaults on pay and conditions that can be blamed on the virus emergency.
Of course the previous terms won’t be restored after it passes.
Fire and rehire effectively sidelines trade union officials from significant negotiations.
The company or firm presents workers individually with a choice.
They can sign a new contract or be out of a job. Sometimes workers are even bribed into signing by a financial incentive.
If workers sign these contracts they are considered to have “agreed” to the new terms.
This not only gives the bosses legal justification but also excludes trade unions from effective bargaining.
Unions such as Unite and the GMB are currently putting energy and publicity into highlighting how insidious fire and rehire is.
That’s partly because it’s such an overt attack.
It’s also because it’s a threat to the bureaucracy itself. If you take negotiations out of disputes then the union bureaucracy has little function.
The trend of fire and rehire also points to a larger problem that has been accelerated by the coronavirus crisis.
Workers have been stripped of many of the assurances that were won after the Second World War.
Decades of neoliberalism pushed by those at the top has meant welfare reforms have been gradually snatched away—from council housing to free education.
And another assurance to workers has been stripped away—that it is possible to have a secure job for life.
Many British Gas strikers have worked for the company for decades. They believed that their jobs were secure and valued.
To discover that, in reality, this security and value was a lie can heighten the bitterness and resentment felt by workers.
This resentment has the potential to push workers in different directions—to left wing collective struggle or right wing despair.
Even if the bosses manage to force through fire and rehire, this bitterness would be long-lasting.
Fire and rehire is a gamble for bosses.
They run the risk of losing highly-trained workers.
They could also fuel deep resentment against the way the company has acted.
And it’s much harder to persuade workers that “we’re all in it together” when you have just obliterated their rights by the threat of the sack.
But while fire and rehire is a vicious threat, workers are not powerless to fight back.
The bosses rely on the labour of the very same employees they threaten to fire.
A collective response from workers—protesting, striking and refusing the blackmail— remains the only way to beat fire and rehire.
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