Ben Wray writes: The Coronavirus crisis has brought carnage to the hospitality sector in Scotland. Representing 220,000 workers – 8.6 per cent of all jobs – and supporting a further 120,000 indirectly, it is a major section of the Scottish economy, and effectively was shutdown entirely when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the closure of all pubs, clubs and restaurants on Wednesday 20 March.
The hospitality sector in Scotland is notorious for precarious working conditions with ‘zero-hour’ contracts and agency work widespread, so even before the shutdown announcement many employers had already acted swiftly to take advantage of these weak contractual obligations to initiate mass redundancies, as the reality of Coronavirus and it’s impact on the industry was dawning. However, there has been a determined resistance to this from hospitality unions, with Unite Industrial Organiser Bryan Simpson reporting an unprecedented engagement with their social media pages, and 220 people joining the union in the first three days of the week alone.
On the same day as the shutdown of bars and restaurants, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a government payment scheme for 80 per cent of workers wages on behalf of businesses. This has increased the leverage for the union to demand employers do not lay off staff. In the cases below of struggles which have occurred only over the past two weeks, it’s clear that workers have been able to achieve significant victories to defend jobs and livelihoods when organised in a union.
Beauty salon workers
Beauty salon workers at Pure Spa & Beauty, an Edinburgh based company with UK-wide chains, told its staff on the week beginning March 16 that they were all to accept zero hour contracts or resign. The call came after the government had stated a bailout package would be agreed and staff shouldn’t be laid off in the interim.
The workers refused the ultimatum. They were presented with deadlines to sign “all of which passed with consequence,” the workers wrote on a ‘Better than Zero’ blog explaining their struggle.
“Defeating this ultimatum gave us strength to stick to our collective position,” they added.
They began to organise through the GMB, faced down legal threats and repeated demands to sign the zero hour contract, reached out to the media to popularise their case, and ultimately won a significant victory, maintaining 100 per cent of their contract in March and 80 per cent their after, with no changes to conditions.
“Our message to workers who are in uncertain positions is this: get together in a Whatsapp group and work together to demand what you all deserve,” the Pure Spa female workforce wrote. “Don’t expect your boss to do it for you. We want to negotiate to get the best for all of us, not be dictated to. Instead of turning on each other we are sticking together through thick and thin and we’ll always remember that in the toughest of times we stood together, and together we will win.”
Queen Margaret Union
At a student union bar in Glasgow, the Queen Margaret Union, 31 staff were laid off before the UK Government’s wage guarantee was announced. After the announcement, the employer refused to reinstate them. Most of the staff are students, so they won’t be able to claim benefits if they are made unemployed.
Commenting on the case, Bryan Simpson, Industrial Organiser for Unite Hospitality, said it was “nothing short of disgraceful” and “will leave the reputation of the QMU in tatters”.
On 25 March it was announced that management had overturned their decision and reinstated the staff, and said it “apologised deeply to the staff” for the upset caused by the redundancy announcement.
At Carluccio’s, an Italian Restaurant in Glasgow, the employer has sought to deduct 50 per cent of workers wages, despite the work already being done. The company announced in an e-mail that they had mothballed the firm and thus the employees would not get the money they had already earned.
“I realise this is going to be a terrible shock to all of you,” the company e-mail read.
A Twitter user going by the name ‘Scotty’, who posted the information, said he had a payslip showing an almost £500 deduction on it.
The cinema chain Cineworld, the world’s second largest exhibitor, announced following the closure of cinemas in the UK that it was sacking all staff except those with over three years service, who would be retained on 40 per cent of their salary. The chain has cinemas across the UK, including the largest cinema in Europe based in Glasgow.
The decision sparked outrage, and a campaign was started by sacked workers and current employees to put pressure on the company to reinstate the staff following the new government protection scheme announced. The letter demanding their reinstatement stated that it has left people in a “financially precarious situation”.
On 26 March, the company announced it had U-turned, and would reinstate all of the staff.
G1 Group is a notorious bad employer in Scotland. It is a chain of entertainment venues owned by Stefan King, and is known for poor treatment of staff. After the Coronavirus outbreak, the company terminated all contracts other than those of top level staff, laying off hundreds of people in one stroke. Following the government’s announcement of an income protection scheme, G1 said all firings were stopped while they were “reviewing the details behind the announcement”. This was not a clear statement that all jobs were saved.
Following the semi u-turn, G1 staff wrote to King demanding an apology for the “emotional distress” of the sackings, for the company to pay the 20 per cent of their wages not paid by the government scheme, and full sick pay for all self-isolating staff.
Even where victories have been won, the situation is extremely precarious for hospitality workers in Scotland. Following the announcement of a lockdown of the UK on Monday, employers are being advised not to ask workers to come in if the work is not “essential”. This should include basically all of the hospitality sector (other than hotel workers housing the sick and health staff), but organisers report examples of people being asked to come in, due to the lack of strict enforcement on locking down non-essential work.
And for those who do still have to go to work, what about if they get sick with the virus? Currently there is a threshold to access the £93.23 per week sick pay whereby a worker has to earn over £118 per week, but for many hospitality workers they get left with this. Thus, these low-paid workers are in the position of being forced to work while sick (endangering others), or taking time off and earning nothing.
Hospitality union activists on the ground have realised that as well as pressuring employers, they need to take their demands direct to government, which has signalled to employers that it is willing to offer “unlimited” support to protect jobs. That statement has been identified as leverage to use with bosses in demanding a halt to redundancies.
Hospitality activists at the grassroots level have been leading the union’s political response from the ground up. They quickly identified the Danish model – where the government and employers associations have struck a deal whereby the government pays 75 per cent of wages and the employer pays 25 per cent, while workers agree to give up five days of paid vacation time – as the example to press with the UK Government as the way forward to fully protect employees.
They have developed five key demands to press on government:
- Removing the £114 threshold for statutory sick pay (SSP)
- Full company sick pay: 75 per cent from government and 25 per cent from the employer
- No opportunistic redundancies
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) appropriate to the role
- Engage with workers who know the industry as to how to save it
Union organiser Bryan Simpson reports having the busiest week of his organising life so far. But that week has not all been negative: there are signs that people are willing to apply pressure at the industrial and political level to make sure they don’t pay for this crisis.
BRAVE NEW EUROPE has always considered the Gig Economy one of the most important economic developments of our time. Unfortunately it is totally ignored in mainstream media and by much of academia. The Lipman-Miliband Foundation has generously financed a pilot project to form an information network on how gig economy workers are organising across Europe, thus supporting them in creating a public voice that up to now has been denied them.
We are very honoured that Ben Wray has accepted leadership of this project and he wants to get in touch directly with workers all across Europe about the situation on the ground in unprecedented circumstances. You can get in contact with ben by e-mailing [email protected].
Ben Wray is a freelance journalist leading BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S Gig Economy Project. He also produces a morning newsletter called Source Direct on Scottish politics, which you can sign-up to here: https://sourcenews.scot/mailing-list/te here.