Almost a year ago today, workers in the Dundee restaurant Brassica staged a walkout. Fed up with late payments of wages, bullying and job insecurity, they decided to shut the venue down in protest. The direct action was taken without any union advice or backing, the demand was simple – pay us what we’re due, or we’ll close you down.
It’s fair to say the workers had no idea what they were getting themselves into: before this, none of them had ever been in a trade union or taken part in a protest. Little did they know this dispute would become the talk of the city for months to follow.
After reading about the Brassica dispute in a local paper, I posted the story in a Facebook page for Dundee hospitality workers and received a reply from Dan, one of those involved in the walkout. We arranged to meet in the local Unite building the next day. I asked some local activists to come along, hoping that we could encourage the workers to join the union.
At the meeting, they told us about the terrible working conditions at the restaurant. They described a culture of bullying, explained how they had been paid late or underpaid nearly every month, and crucially, told us of their suspicions that the venue was in deep financial trouble, even though it had only been open three months.
When their concerns about finances were ignored and the company refused to pay their last month’s wages, the workers decided that was the final straw. After some assurance that we would help them run a grassroots campaign as well as fighting their legal case, many of the workers decided to join Unite. With some already in rent arrears, and many racking up debts, the stakes were high.
Brassica was owned by Tayone Food Limited, which had two directors, Dea McGill, a local businesswoman, and Dr. Rami Sarraf, the owner of the largest dental practice in Tayside. Soon after the walk out, it was revealed that the workers had been right about the dire state of their restaurant’s finances.
It was announced in October 2018 that Tayone Food Limited had gone into administration. Through a bizarre note on the door of the venue, we discovered the new occupier was the suspiciously similar ‘Brasserie Ecosse’. A few days later, it transpired that the architect of this new venture was none other than Dr. Rami Sarraf, former co-director of Brassica.
As workers struggled to put food on the table, they watched as the premises were refurbished, brand new furniture was delivered and a mural was commissioned inside the restaurant. Many of them were outraged: how could it be morally right, or legal, to pump money into a new business without paying the staff from a previous one?
But, of course, while this is abhorrent behaviour, it is entirely legal. The hospitality industry is full of cases where owners wait for a failing venue to crash, and then open a similar venture in the same premises or with the same owners. The practice is known as ‘phoenixing’, and the law leaves few protections for workers left behind in the process.
This wasn’t a case of a businessman down on his luck, either. Dr. Sarraf was a millionaire who earned over £500,000 from NHS patients alone in the last year. He was able to pay his workers what they were due. (The second director, Dea McGill, was subsequently charged with embezzlement.)
Workers being cheated out of their wages didn’t go down well with the people of Dundee. A boycott was organised and regular protests were held outside the restaurant, which had yet to open. Trade unionists stood in solidarity with the Brassica workers, including those from Dundee’s Michelin plant, which bosses had announced was to close next year.
Dundee is a city with a proud working class history, from the militant lock outs in the Jute industry in the early 1900s to the determined Timex strikers in ’93. But today, it is also a playground for developers. The city is the site of a major waterfront development which includes the new V&A museum and the £700 million Tay cities deal.
Brassica as a venture was promoted by Dundee City Council, and the business received public money to provide unpaid training and job opportunities to the unemployed. In theory, this was dependent on Brassica paying a living wage. But they never did – and the inspections designed to ensure compliance never took place.
When the development was first announced, SNP councillor Lynne Short described Dundee’s growing visitor numbers as a ‘launch pad for the tourism offering.’ But, like many cities experiencing ‘regeneration projects,’ Dundee’s workers soon found that the fruits of the city’s new tourism industry were never meant for them.
By December, Dr. Sarraf was keen to open his new restaurant and submitted a licensing application for Brasserie Ecosse. The campaign mobilised quickly to prevent this from going through. We met with councillors of the licensing committee, and explained that no licence should be granted until the workers were paid what they were due.
This amounted to £28,721, a fraction of Dr. Sarraf’s annual salary. It included holiday pay and wages owed, as well as a protective award for failure to consult with workers over redundancy. When the time came for the licensing committee, workers and campaigners filled the public gallery. We were not allowed to present a case directly to the committee, so we heckled until we were heard.
But the Licensing (Scotland) Act is a 114-page document which makes no mention of workers’ rights. Dundee City Council’s licensing committee therefore ruled that it would be unlawful to reject an application on moral grounds. This meant we were only able to win a month’s suspension to Dr. Sarraf licence.
The campaign celebrated this as a victory – Christmas is the time real money is made in the hospitality industry, and being unable to serve alcohol would deliver a major blow to the business’ profits. However, we were deeply disappointed that come January when the licencing application was heard again, Dr. Sarraf’s application was granted.
While the workers were still riddled with debts, rent arrears and late bill payments, their neglectful boss was validated by the state. And while they received some of the money they were due from the insolvency service, they did not receive any payments before Christmas. This is the story across the country, when bosses fail it is workers who pay the price.
But this week, after nearly a year of organising and protesting, the tide turned. A judge ruled that there was a ‘complete failure of compliance’ on the part of management – the workers won the maximum collective award.
While this victory is long overdue, we should not forget the role of the law facilitating the injustice. When asked how he felt after the result, a former worker Paul told me, ‘I’m very happy that everything has finally come our way, but we need to continue the fight for a law that stops this from happening again.’
Both company law and licensing legislation needs to be urgently reformed to ensure workers are protected. Without change, precarious and low-paid workers, in industries such as hospitality, will continue to be left behind. In its current form, the law protects the interests of capital – and treats working-class people as disposable in the pursuit of profit.
Local government doesn’t escape blame in the Brassica case, either. Dundee City Council were unconcerned with workers’ rights when handing out public funding to this venture. Our elected representatives have a duty of care to scrutinise working conditions. If they fail in this duty, they are complicit in workers being vulnerable to exploitation.
The workers of Brassica were brave. With very little left to lose and everything to gain, they took a stand against injustice and were eventually vindicated for it. Now, it is our turn as the labour movement to ensure that their legacy is that workers are protected from outcomes like these in the years to come.
When our movement throws its weight behind low-paid and precarious workers, when we give them confidence, they can achieve great things. Through empowering those workers in low union membership industries, those with the odds stacked most against them, we can create a thriving and radical culture of trade unionism for generations to come.