Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Thursday, 13 November 2008

BT workers 'in a state of shock'

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Michael Whitby
Agency worker Michael Whitby was told he was being let go on Friday

Thousands of BT workers face an uncertain future after the firm announced it is in the process of shedding 10,000 jobs.

Some of them have spoken to BBC News about their feelings.

When Michael Whitby was called into a manager's office with two colleagues, he knew something was up.

The rest of his team had been called into a different room and - while they were being told their jobs were safe - Mr Whitby was handed his notice.

"I was absolutely gutted," said the 23-year-old, who lives near Runcorn in Cheshire.

"It didn't seem real. I just didn't see it coming at all and it was handled so poorly."

Originally employed by a recruitment agency, he had been working at BT Openreach in Chester for nearly three years where he liaised with engineers over the repairs to the broadband network.

Most of us are still in a state of shock
BT worker, north London

Mr Whitby was told cutbacks were required because of increased automation and transfer of work off-shore.

"We knew it was happening and I thought we might lose our jobs after Christmas. I was planning to look for a new job then," he said.

Instead, he has been left to join the scramble for an ever-decreasing pool of jobs at a time when more and more people find themselves out of work.

Still living with his parents, Mr Whitby is grateful he has no mortgage but will still need temporary work to cover his usual outgoings.

Many others are not so lucky, scaling back Christmas celebrations as they struggle to get by.

One BT contractor, from Sheffield, told the BBC: "With a wife and two kids and a mortgage to support, I am concerned.

"I am putting money aside if the worst comes to the worst as I am not expecting much help from the Government."

BT worker
BT's direct employees make up 4,000 of the 10,000 jobs which are being cut

Another, from Alness, near Inverness, said: "An e-mail sent out to us this morning was worded as if [contractors] don't matter... but we still have mortgages, bills and kids to pay for."

Despite their fears, many of those who contacted the BBC accepted the need for BT to trim its workforce, with the threat of recession looming large.

Dave Brown, from Lancashire, works for the global services arm of BT, told BBC Five Live that agency and contract staff were taken on in the knowledge they would be the first to go.

"Many of these people get paid a lot more than the standard salary that's paid to the normal staff," he said.

"What BT's doing is trying as far as they can to protect all its permanent full time members of staff."

But several long-serving employees said the company was avoiding hefty redundancy pay-offs by putting them into a pool of staff awaiting redeployment.

One 55-year-old engineer, who has been with the company since leaving school in 1969, said he was earmarked for a career change in July 2007.

Since then, said the worker from Seaford in Sussex, he had been paid his usual salary while he searched for a job elsewhere in the company. Contractors were being paid to do his old job, he said.

A large part of this plan is about bringing work back in-house at BT
BT spokesman

"At the moment all departments of BT are cutting back. I can see very little chance of ever finding another role within BT," he said.

He added that while BT claimed to be helping people like him find work, he felt as though the company was waiting until they were "so fed up" that they just left.

A 44-year-old Openreach worker, who allocated engineers to repair jobs in north London, said he was on a list of nine top-performing members of his 40-strong team who had been similarly earmarked for redeployment.

"The official line is that high-performers will be able to find work elsewhere," he said.

"But you will have hundreds of people going after one or two jobs. I can't understand why you would want to get rid of your best people from a team. Common sense has gone out of the window.

"Most of us are still in a state of shock."

Reskilling staff

BT insists compulsory job losses are unlikely and that there will be opportunities for redeployment. About 7,000 people leave the company each year and the company plans to shed only around 4,000 permanent staff.

A spokesman said: "A large part of this plan is about bringing work back in-house at BT.

"We want to reduce our reliance on agencies and contractors and ensure work that they are doing on behalf of BT will be carried out by employees in-house."

"This will require us to reskill some of our existing staff, something we have a strong track-record in doing."

For the company's agency, offshore and subcontracted workers, the future remains much less certain.

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