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Computacenter and BT fall foul of TUPE?

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BT recently announced it was talking over an outsourcing contract with the UK's leading reseller, Computacenter. If the deal concludes, Computacenter will provide desktop support for 90,000 BT users. The deal will run for five years with nearly 400 BT staff transferring to Computacenter.

The staff weren't happy about the arrangement and were considering strike action supported by the Communications Workers Union (CWU). It now appears that the proposed transfer wasn't following the Transfer of Undertakings, Protection of Employment (TUPE) guidelines and both companies may now fall foul of the law.

TUPE is a standard and well-established practice in Outsourcing deals. Outsourcing often involves transferring staff from the customer organisation to the vendor organisation and the TUPE legislation was introduced to protect the worker's rights.

TUPE provides continued employment and protects the worker's rights and benefits. Some of the more specific benefits cannot be transferred; those in the financial sector may receive low cost mortgages for example, but some form of agreement has to be produced so that the worker is no worse off with their new employer.

The problem with the BT and talks is that the deal was originally discussed in August 2001 and only formally announced on 22 January 2002, at which point the CWU were informed for the first time.

According to the CWU, BT has not followed the TUPE protocol, as the union was not consulted during this period. The union claims that the deal is being pushed through without its involvement and that industrial action is likely to follow.

The staff aspect of outsourcing is the most sensitive and often the most poorly executed aspect of the contract. Any company touting itself to be a people company rarely informs its staff of anything until the very last minute. Add into this the inertia to change that is often found in end-user organisations and it's clear to see why there is often resistance to transferring to a new employer.

Given BT's history as a Government -unded monopoly, its easy to understand that staff are used to doing things the way that they've always done and there are likely to be many BT lifers involved in the Computacenter deal. So, the inertia and resistance is likely to be far higher than elsewhere.

The CWU is an added factor: few IT staff have any association to a union and industrial action elsewhere just doesn't happen. Obviously, BT is a unionised environment and so it would be surprising if it is found that the union have a valid claim, BT management must be wise to the unions by now and its HR department should certainly be aware of TUPE legislation.

So, has BT pulled the rug out from under its workers feet? We will just have to wait and watch this one unfold.

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