BT calls in cover as staff reject 'flexible' hours

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BT has been forced to call in 500 contract workers after employees at its Openreach business, which installs and maintains internet and phone lines, refused to work more flexible hours.

The telecoms giant, which axed 10,000 contract workers last year and announced in May that more would go, is in talks with the Communication Workers Union (CWU) whose members rejected the proposals last week.

After discussions in August, the CWU agreed to back BT's proposals that Openreach working hours should include evenings and weekends, times its customers tend to be at home.

The union's members rejected the motion in a tight vote of 56 per cent to 44 per cent last Tuesday, despite the CWU's backing. A spokesman for BT said: "We are disappointed by the vote as the proposals agreed with the union's leadership are designed to improve customer service and secure jobs."

BT is understood to be finalising preparations to bring in 500 contract engineers to cover some short-term routine work. Should the two sides fail to resolve this issue, BT could be forced to call in thousands more temps.

Andy Kerr, the CWU's deputy general secretary, said: "We will be having urgent meetings with the company this week to specifically discuss the issues within Openreach."

BT said the company was trying to persuade individual engineers to work more flexibly. "It is critical that Openreach continues to meet the needs of its customers and so, despite the result of this ballot, we will be asking our engineers to indicate their willingness to agree to a change to their attendance patterns."

BT launched Openreach in 2006 to install and maintain the wiring, fibres and connections from homes and businesses to local exchanges for telephone calls and internet access. It maintains the network on behalf of more than 400 communications companies. The business was previously managed by BT's wholesale and retail divisions. It was spun into a separate entity, after a review by the communications watchdog, Ofcom, as the market grew and the networks came under ever more pressure.