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How Hospitality Workers Organised in a Pandemic

In Scotland, Covid-19 saw a wave of redundancies for hospitality workers. But rather than accept their fate, workers organised – and pushed their bosses back.

On 16 March, Boris Johnson encouraged the nation to stop going to pubs, restaurants, and cafes. The move had little to do with public health, and much to do with saving his friends in big insurance companies billions of pounds in public liability payouts to employers who would soon be mandated to close. In the two weeks which followed more than 30,000 bartenders, baristas, and housekeepers lost their jobs.

The hospitality sector has long been a bellwether for Britain’s economic direction. Few sectors better exemplify the growing gap between monstrous corporate profits for multinationals and the meagre pay and conditions they hand out to their workers. But for years my union, Unite, has been organising in hospitality — trying to build better conditions the only way they are ever sustained: through workplace strength.

On the same day that Johnson made his statement, our leading reps in Scotland met in Edinburgh to formulate an emergency organising strategy which sought to stave-off or at least mitigate the impending tidal wave of job losses. Over the next month, we implemented and grew this strategy through mass Zoom meetings and WhatsApp groups. We supported thousands of workers to fight back collectively to protect their jobs and wages.

Worker Organisation

When Marriott hotels refused to furlough their 1,500 casual staff, a workforce that was majority young women and migrants clubbed together and demanded fair and equitable treatment with their permanent counterparts. And they won — workers were reinstated and received 80 per cent of wages backdated to March. When Scotland’s largest hospitality employer, the G1 Group, sacked almost 2,000 workers by phone, our members immediately got to work organising their colleagues. They launched a national social and mainstream media strategy aimed at the already battered reputation of the infamous employer. Within 48 hours the company was forced into an embarrassing U-turn, reinstating all workers.

Much the same happened at the Scottish Events Campus when it sacked 630 of its hospitality staff by Facebook post. The mostly casual workforce decided that they would fight back and wrote a collective letter to the venue director as well as local politicians. The company agreed not only to bring the staff back but to pay those furloughed 100 per cent of wages for the first two weeks. When the huge venue was turned into the Louisa Jordan super hospital, those staff who weren’t furloughed received between £9.30 and £12.30 per hour regardless of age and the implementation of a landmark ‘traffic-light’ system which ensures the health and safety of those members who kept the NHS workers of Glasgow fed and watered.

Galvanised by their first foray into successful collective action, our newest members have refused to accept attacks on their livelihoods, even bringing previously apathetic colleagues along with them. The victory of casual workers at Marriott inspired the permanent workers — now threatened with redundancy — to demand better, proposing alternatives to mass compulsory redundancy. These included upskilling workers in those departments worst affected in order to support the areas of the business which remain open. Such has been the strength of collective feeling among the newly-unionised workforce about these proposals that senior management at some of the most prestigious hotels have capitulated to demands and reduced job losses or replaced compulsory redundancies with voluntary enhanced packages.

Within those companies which bulldoze through mass redundancies without proper consultation, our members remain ready and willing to lodge collective appeals and tribunal claims for unfair dismissal and protective awards. It was in support of members at Carluccios that we won the first Covid-related legal battle at the High Court, ensuring that all workers whose employer was in administration would still receive a wage through the Job Retention Scheme. As July’s landmark victory against Jamie’s Italian showed, employers who mistreat organised workers can stand to make heavy losses through the courts — if there’s determination to fight.

Coming Jobs Crisis

But, of course, the crisis in the hospitality sector is far from over. As we hurtle towards the unnecessary cliff edge of the furlough scheme, some of the biggest names in the industry have begun to issue redundancy notices to the majority of their workforce in what is likely to be the biggest single loss of jobs the sector has ever seen.

Marriott — the world’s biggest and richest hotel chain — plan to make at least 10,000 workers redundant despite the fact that most of their hotels are now open. Intercontinental Hotels Group — an organisation which made £3 billion last year alone, issued redundancy notices to thousands of staff. At their flagship hotels in Glasgow and Edinburgh, they are proposing the termination of 95 per cent of the workforce — almost 500 workers. Casual Dining Group (owners of Bella Italia, Café Rouge, and Las Iguanas) invited 1,900 workers onto a conference call with 24 hours’ notice to tell them that they were all being made redundant.

These companies claim that they have no other option, that customer levels are too low to sustain wages. The problem with that argument is that for the last four months, they’ve not been paying wages. The Job Retention Scheme — a scheme negotiated by the trade union movement — was created to prevent this very scenario. These companies could and should be utilising the furlough scheme until 31 October in order to retain their hard-working staff. Instead, many sought to terminate staff by the end of July – because by 1 August they would have to contribute a measly 18 per cent towards the National Insurance and pensions of their employees.

To put these amounts into perspective, Intercontinental Hotels Group secured a £600 million loan as part of the Covid Corporate Financing Facility from the Bank of England, bringing its total liquidity level to almost £2 billion. It would have cost them less than £5 million to cover the wages of staff for August, avoiding mass job losses while occupancy picked up. Instead, they paid out hundreds of millions in statutory redundancy packages. These mass sackings have little to do with occupancy levels or securing sustainability — they are the latest round of a race to the bottom.

These multinational hospitality employers are using Covid as an excuse to offload staff and slash terms and conditions. In some cases they are even bringing the same workers back on minimum wage, discriminatory youth rates, or zero-hour contracts. At their flagship hotel in Edinburgh, Holiday Inn are proposing to sack everyone but the four most senior managers and to bring the others back as ‘hospitality service experts’ on £9 an hour. These ‘fire-and-rehire’ polices have become notorious in this crisis through the actions of British Airways, who propose to sack 30,000 workers and bring them back on worse terms and conditions.

But in the hospitality sector too, Covid has provided a perfect cover for what many multinationals have been trying to do for years. The ambition is simple: to make their workforce as disposable and flexible as possible, relying on the desperation of workers barely surviving on 80 per cent of minimum wage for the past four months. Pitching them against their colleagues to fight it out for a low-paid, insecure job — and one that they should be grateful for. They didn’t think for a second that these workers would organise and fight back. They believed that unions would be shackled by the inability to organise mass protests or traditional industrial action. As always, however, they underestimated us.

Union Militancy

In July, newly unionised hospitality workers took direct action in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, and London demanding government intervention to quell the tide of job losses and to take action against employers who intended to use public furlough money to cover the notice and even redundancy packages of their staff. Within a week, our members had a meeting with the tourism minister. They won the tightening of HMRC rules governing the Job Retention Scheme and saw the introduction of emergency legislation to ensure that every redundant worker gets 100 per cent of their severance package.

While saving jobs and keeping workers safe remain Unite’s most urgent priorities, the aims and ambitions of our leading members are very much long-term: to radically transform a sector hitherto untouched by trade unionism for the benefit of the workers who make the profit. In May, following the positive input of hundreds of chefs, baristas, housekeepers, and waitresses we launched our ‘New Deal for Hospitality.’ This comprehensive document maps out what is needed, not just to guide the industry out of this crisis, but to ensure that we never again go back to poverty pay and insecure contracts that have left thousands in economic turmoil.

What the past few months have shown us is not just the untapped power of precarious workers but just how integral service sector workers have been during this crisis. The lowest-paid and most contractually insecure workers who had previously been labelled ‘unskilled’ are now the indisputable backbone of an economy which had been — until very recently — paralysed by the pandemic.

As a trade union movement, we owe it to these workers to ensure that this is not forgotten by employers or government alike. We must throw our full weight and organising might behind winning a new deal for hospitality workers — one which ensures there is no more poverty pay, no more zero-hours, and no more mass redundancy on statutory packages. Our members across the sector have proven that they’re up for the fight.