Scotland’s Bar Workers Are Fighting for Better

Workers at Macmerry bars in Glasgow and Dundee faced years of underpayment, unsafe conditions and impossible hours – but then they joined a trade union, and the tide in the workplace began to change.

On 8 January, staff formed themselves into a picket line outside Abandon Ship as part of a dispute with their employer Macmerry 300. (@betterthanzero / Twitter)

On a cold January night in Glasgow, a group of staff formed themselves into a picket line outside Abandon Ship, a new upmarket addition to the city’s bar scene. Gathered under a bright red neon pub sign that insists ‘Not Everything Sucks’ (the universe still has a sense of humour), it was the first action of a growing dispute between bar staff and their employer Macmerry 300, a Scottish pub chain that manages some 13 bars in Glasgow and Dundee.

In a collective trade union grievance signed by 70% of all the employees at Macmerry, workers documented around 65 often potentially illegal issues that hit bar staff. From allegedly ignoring Covid restrictions and underpaying staff to bullying and a string of unresolved sexual assault and harassment claims against managers and regulars, the allegations make hard reading. Tribune spoke to the staff at Macmerry to find out what led them to fight back.

‘The first shift after we opened set the tone for it all—me and my team worked for 14 hours with no breaks,’ says John*, a Macmerry 300 employee. ‘At the end, we got together and said to the manager we understand it’s the launch but in future we need to make sure we get a break. He said to just make sure we eat before our shift.’

People were facing longer and longer shifts—sometimes closing and opening at times that broke the legal requirement to give employees 11 hours between the end of one shift and the start of the next, according to John. When he complained, he says that management just docked his overall weekly hours from 50 to 30, seemingly as a punishment.

Beyond shifts, staff tell me the bar never had hot water to safely clean glasses and plates for food, allegedly because the company had failed to pay their utility bills. Sharp table edges had also cut customers, although the media storm around the current dispute meant that one interviewee said they had walked into work and seen that the tables were being fixed.

The list of problems only grows as we talk: being filed under the wrong tax codes, paying money from wages into a pensions scheme only for it to disappear, and failing to pay out sick pay at all in the middle of a pandemic. Everyone I spoke to said it was common for Macmerry to dock holiday days from staff who were ill or had to isolate, creating an incentive for staff to never take sick days in the middle of a pandemic.

For many, the worst issue was bullying and sexual harassment. Employees described a culture of constant bullying that left staff crying on shift. Another shared the account of a female colleague who was harassed and groped and, on speaking to management about it, told that it didn’t matter as long as those doing it were spending money.

Other accusations included managers making public sexual comments about their staff, threatening sick employees with the sack if they didn’t work, and multiple accusations of sexual assault against managers. And even the most serious allegations were said to be ignored by management with no repercussions for the offenders.

Ewan McCallum tells me that most of the issues at the Dundee pub Bird and Bear he works at started long before now. He rattles through a list of underpayment, confiscated pay, lack of sick pay, and unsafe, unclean working conditions that hadn’t been acted on for years, he says. When a big Covid outbreak hit the pub, management allegedly didn’t tell any of the staff that they may have been exposed to the virus.

Everyone also has a story that hits home, but his might be worse than most. ‘I had to turn off the mains electricity while submerged in raw sewage one time,’ he recalls. ‘They’ve been told at every juncture what’s wrong, what we need fixed, and it’s always “we’ll do that at some point” or “it’s not that bad” or “it’s in the works”.’

‘I wouldn’t say that any particular staff member, including myself, hasn’t experienced almost all of the things on that grievance,’ says Cheri O’Donnell, who works at Draffens, a Macmerry bar in Dundee. At one point, she recounts isolating for Covid in September 2020 and being given just £50 to pay for the entire week by Macmerry. That amount is almost half the rate of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) of £96.35 a week—already one of the lowest rates in Europe.

When Unite filed the grievance, the response from Macmerry in the press was to say they ‘utterly refute’ all the claims and that they ‘first learned of any alleged issues’ that day. They also accused the union of taking first to social media ‘rather than raising any concerns with our management team’.

The staff I spoke to were confused and hurt by the reaction. They all say they and their colleagues had spoken to managers about individual problems and even filed another collective grievance without trade union support last year.

Tribune understands that the workforce have since had meetings with Macmerry where they say where they say at least one director refused to apologise for its handling of sexual assault and harassment cases.

Asked to comment on all the issues hitting their workforce and their initial response to the union action, Macmerry director Phil Donaldson said: ‘The directors of Macmerry300 Ltd and Abandon Ship Bars Ltd met with employees and their union representative this afternoon and thank employees for their openness in discussing their concerns. Both companies are committed to carrying out a thorough and independent investigation and to resolving them.’ Unite Hospitality also tweeted on Wednesday that Macmerry’s owners have ‘committed to a full investigation [and] action in order to make these venues decent places to work,’ adding, ‘We will hold them to that.’

On another level, though, the dispute goes deeper than Macmerry.

‘Macmerry is a symptom of the industry,’ says Cheri. ‘The way we’ve been treated can be found to some extent in every single bar.’ She gives an example: working at the casino in Dundee, a customer tried to find out her home address from other staff. ‘When I went to management with that, the response was “he’s just a lonely old man,”’ she explains.

Past surveys have found that as many as 89% of staff in the hospitality industry have experienced one or more incident of sexual harassment. Across every sector, accommodation and food have the highest number of workers on zero-hours contracts (13%). Those on already exploitative zero-hours contracts are also almost twice as likely to experience unwanted sexual behaviour at work. 83% of bar staff earn under £10 an hour and more than one in seven across the hospitality sector were paid below the minimum wage.

Unlike many other sectors with more regular surveys on staff welfare and exploitation, the data for hospitality is also pretty sparse. Accounts of mistreatment often pass between staff in hushed whispers on shift or in anecdotes swapped over pints. Much of it is accepted as an unchangeable fact of working in the industry. ‘There were things this last year that I know I wouldn’t have accepted in any other career path, but because it was hospitality, for some reason I was like, “oh, yeah, it’s fine”,’ says Cheri.

That perceived inevitability might go some way toward explaining why the hospitality sector has never had huge trade union membership. But things are beginning to change: for many, the pandemic was the final straw. Last year, Unite, the union representing workers in the Macmerry dispute, saw membership in the hospitality sector spike by at least 11.4%. More than anything then, a group of workers manning a cold night-time picket in Glasgow might be a sign of what’s to come.