DHL deliveries of coffee to supermarkets across the UK could be facing disruption this week after workers voted to escalate strike action at Jacobs Douwe Egberts’ Banbury depot, after the coffee supplier issued dismissal notices today (2 June).

The dispute, which flared earlier this year, centres around the Dutch company’s “hire and fire” policy, which has seen it insist that the depot’s 291 employees sign new contracts or face dismissal. Workers are arguing that the new contracts offer inferior pay and conditions to their existing ones.

Unite slammed this latest move by JDE as “corporate gangsterism” warning that some workers could stand to lose up to £12,000 a year on the new terms.

The union is warning that it will escalate industrial action with four new strike days at the Ruscote Avenue site after the company said employees who refuse to sign the new contracts by 17 May will be issued with 12 weeks’ notice, effective from 7 June.

Unite national officer for the food industry Joe Clarke said: “The company has today announced its notice to dismiss the entire workforce by using unscrupulous ‘fire and rehire’ tactics.

“This move comes on the back of an unprecedented level of commitment by our members throughout the Covid crisis keeping the nation supplied with coffee, as demand soared by an estimated 40%.

“We can only describe the company’s greed-driven approach as a result of a culture of corporate gangsterism by this highly profitable Dutch-owned company.

“We will now escalate strike action in the weeks ahead until the company withdraws these notices and enters into constructive dialogue with Unite to chart a way forward that does not cause economic and social havoc to Banbury and the wider economy.

“We strongly dispute JDE’s claim that half of the affected workers will be £4,000 better off on average – we stand by our position that the new contracts could see some of our members lose up to £12,000 a year in pay – and, in some cases, their homes.”

The union is running a national campaign to get the government to outlaw the “hire and fire” practices, in line with other European countries. A recent Survation poll for Unite found seven in 10 want the practice banned.

Unite assistant general secretary for politics and legal, Howard Beckett, said: “It's quite clear that the public is firmly on the side of working people when it comes to the horrific practice of fire and rehire.

"There is no grey area here. They see that this is an objectionable practice that should be banned. The government has to get on the same page as voters on this and fast."

A JDE UK spokesperson said the company was confident that coffee supplies would be maintained despite the dispute and expressed disappointment that the union refused to negotiate.

“Over the past five months we have repeatedly tried to negotiate with the union on changes to working practices at our factory in Banbury. They have been unwilling to discuss the terms of the proposals or provide any viable suggestions to modernise," the spokesperson said. "As a result, we have been left with no choice but to issue notices of dismissal and re-engagement to those associates who have not voluntarily signed up to the new terms through individual consultation.

“We are very disappointed that it has come to this stage, but change is desperately needed to secure a future for the factory which is 20% to 40% more expensive than other JDE factories in Europe. The changes involve bringing our shift patterns in line with industry best practice which we have benchmarked both internally and externally.

"We recognise the changes will mean some associates will be required to work new hours which will be a difficult adjustment for some. However, we believe our offer is fair as half of affected associates will be £4,000 better off on average and those who are financially impacted will receive compensation.

"We have also ensured that our remuneration offer will be above the industry average following the changes.

“The door has always been and remains open for negotiation. We ask all involved to consider the proposals to reach an agreement that secures a future for the factory.

“Our priority remains to keep the factory operating in a way that protects everyone’s health and safety. We remain in discussion with our supply partners as part of our usual course of business to maintain the supply of our products.”

JDE also disputed Unite's claims over how many people would be affected and how much their pay would be affected by the new terms and conditions.

"This does not apply to the ‘entire workforce’ but only those associates who have not voluntarily signed up to the new terms and conditions through individual consultation," said the spokesperson. "This means that as of 2 June, associates who didn’t sign up by 17 May will be issued a notice of 12 weeks which is effective from 7 June.

"There’s a role for everyone so at the end of the 12 weeks’ notice associates’ current contracts becomes void and they’ll move onto their new terms and conditions.

"The £12,000 figure only applies to a handful of associates and anyone financially impacted will receive compensation. "