PCS officials estimate more than 14,000 members have taken part in a nationwide strike at HMRC advice centres against the threat of privatisation, with a reported walkout by up to 97% of the workforce at some offices.
Across the UK, branch reps reported “cold but cheerful” pickets.
The focus of the strike is on two HMRC contact offices – at Lillyhall in Cumbria and Bathgate in West Lothian – where private employers, Sitel and Teleperformance are operating a one-year, £4m trial involving 200 workers, all of whom are employed on salaries valued at £6,000 a year less than the equivalent HMRC posts.
PCS says it would have been cheaper to employ permanent civil servants on established wages and conditions to do the same job.
The anticipated disruption forced the department to postpone by two days its deadline for people to submit their on-line income tax assessment forms, or face a fine. Officials had estimated close to 1m people would wait to the last day to complete the form.
PCS Secretary at the Lillyhall HMRC centre, Nicola Wright (above) told UnionNews: “The main task today was to explain to the private sector staff what we’re doing today and why we’re doing it.
“The main reason for the action is to try to make the private sector workers have civil service jobs. There are very limited opportunities for employment in Workington and West Cumbria, so people are grateful for the jobs, but we want them to have the same terms and conditions as us.
“Normally, they are segregated off from the rest of the staff and they were nervous when we approached them as they came into work today, but we’re getting positive feedback from them.”
In 2009, some 450 staff worked at the Lillyhall contact centre. With job cuts and a recruitment freeze, that number has fallen to fewer than 300.
Across the UK, 30,000 HMRC posts have been cut since 2005. HMRC last week announced plans to close more advice offices. Officials say a further 10,000 HMRC jobs go by 2015.
NEC rep Derek Thompson joined the Cumbria picket. He said: “The government is trying to remove every aspect of public control from the service and put it into private hands.
“What we are seeing today is a real fightback by PCS members against privatisation.
“These attacks by this government will continue unless unions start to fight back. PCS has already fought back against pensions, we’re now fighting back against privatisation, low pay and job cuts. We believe if the unions stand together and fight back, we’ll beat the government down on this issue.”
The union’s National Executive is scheduled to meet early next month to consider its next steps in the dispute.