As Unite Hospitality reps and front line workers in the hospitality, tourism and events industries, we are facing yet another unnecessary period of uncertainty that mirrors the start of the pandemic in the UK last year, and the delay in action last winter. With the new variant spreading much more rapidly, we not only face infection, serious illness, and isolation from friends and loved ones over the festive period, but the collapse of our industry and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs across the UK.
What we urgently need is the reinstatement of the furlough scheme and full sick pay at 100 percent of the real living wage to come from the UK government, prioritising the sectors that are most high risk. The government is telling us to limit our social contacts before Christmas and advise office workers to work from home. What good is that if people are still allowed to congregate en masse in hospitality settings? In a standard work day, the average hospitality worker comes into contact with potentially hundreds, if not thousands of people.
As we saw from the statistics last year, death rates among hospitality workers were some of the highest of any industry. According to the ONS, security guards experienced 100.7 deaths per 100k, chefs experienced 103 deaths per 100k, and other restaurant workers experienced 119 deaths per 100k, so were 4 to 5 times more likely to die from Covid than the average UK worker – 24.1 deaths per 100k. Many “super spreader” events took place in the sector, between conferences, concerts, weddings and funerals, races and sporting events.
We also face endless abuse from customers and Covid-deniers, when we try and explain the rules and restrictions to them. The impact that this has on mental health, while simply trying to safeguard our colleagues and customers in a risky environment is absolutely incalculable.
This is yet another duty that falls on the shoulders of those who are already asked to go above and beyond as a matter of course. 70% of hospitality workers report feeling overworked, and that was before the pandemic. Over 93% of female hospitality workers have experienced sexual harassment on the job. It is already an industry that is subject to the wrath of customers on a regular basis, and requiring minimum wage workers to be the ones responsible for policing the lifesaving regulations in the face of people who refuse to comply with government regulations and an otherwise fed up and exasperated public is surely more than we are paid to do.
Without the furlough scheme, businesses in the sector face having to push ahead with events that risk transmitting this virulent strain to thousands of people who come together from different places and walks of life to enjoy themselves, or cancelling the scheduled events and closing our doors.
Whilst this might be a disappointment to our customers, it is also sure to result in the financial decimation of our already precarious sector, with hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk, further plunging the nearly 10% of the British workforce that make up the sector into unemployment or at the very least unsustainable financial turmoil, creating additional strain on the national welfare system, housing and mental health services when most of these are already at breaking point.
The truth is that even if businesses stay open without the financial support required to close, customer confidence is already impacted to the extent that bookings and ticket sales have fallen off a cliff in the last week or two. In an industry that relies on reaching a certain operational capacity to hit profitable margins, this drop off in custom is a death sentence for many businesses, and the careers of those that work in them. The lack of certainty will have nearly as devastating an impact as forced closure without furlough.
The obvious solution for all of this is for the government to bring back the furlough scheme at 100%, and sick pay at the real living wage, prioritising sector specific flash points such as the hospitality and service sectors, and close and support these businesses until the annual winter NHS crisis is past. This seems the only logical way that we could also avoid a nationwide lockdown over Christmas, along with working from home directives, mandated mask-wearing and the rapid roll out of booster vaccinations.
By Unite Hospitality