The Big Six energy supplier EDF is planning to axe 150 customer service jobs in Sunderland and across the South in a cost-cutting move that unions fear will lead to a wider redundancy programme.
The job losses come just weeks after EDF’s rival SSE announced plans to chop 500 people from its workforce – a move that some critics believe stems from the possibility of an incoming Labour government and its stated policy of freezing energy bills.
EDF claims that after transferring more than 5 million customer accounts to a new IT system, there are now too many people working in its call centres. Customers are becoming more used to managing their accounts online rather than calling for help about their bills, so 5 per cent of the division’s workforce must go.
However, industry sources suggest that the IT system frequently crashes, while the GMB union’s national officer for customer services, Eamonn O’Hearn Large, said he questioned the “economic rationale” of the redundancies.
He added: “Front-line staff are the people who bear the brunt of angry customers’ complaints – and cost-cutting. We are concerned that this is the thin end of the wedge and might lead to hundreds more job losses.”
The GMB plans to put pressure on EDF by carrying out a workload and staffing survey of front-line employees, which would be expected to show how productive –and therefore essential – they are for EDF. The staff are also represented by the Unison and Prospect unions.
A senior industry figure said it was “not surprising” that EDF was planning redundancies: “All the big energy companies have got to make some pretty major cost-cutting, I think, on the back of Labour’s price-freeze announcement.”
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, announced the policy last year as he sought to move the general election fight on to the cost of living. The election is expected to be close, meaning that energy companies have to prepare to find ways of paying for the prospect of Labour enforcing its pledge to freeze prices to 2017.
The Government responded with a cut on green levies, which resulted in EDF being the first of the Big Six to announce that there were unlikely to be any bill hikes this year. In March, SSE said it would keep electricity and gas prices at their current levels until 2016 – a pledge that led directly to its own job losses.
EDF said that line managers and team coaches in Exeter, Plymouth, Hove, Worthing and Sunderland would be “impacted” by the changes in customer services. Some of these staff are on secondment and will return to their original roles, and EDF is hoping to move other staff or secure voluntary, rather than compulsory, redundancies.
A company spokeswoman said: “To ensure that we run our business as efficiently as possible, we will require fewer employees in this department by the end of 2014. We are doing everything possible to minimise any redundancies.”