Eat out to help out?

Unite highlights how Eat Out to Help Out scheme helps only big business – while hospitality workers are left fighting for their jobs

Reading time: 7 min

The hospitality industry is among the hardest hit sectors amid the Covid-19 pandemic – a recent report last week found that a shocking one in three furloughed workers’ jobs in the sector are at risk.

Redundancy notices have surged in the last few weeks and months, with casual dining chain Pizza Express the latest to announce job cuts. The chain said this week that it plans to permanently close 67 outlets across the UK in response to the coronavirus pandemic, putting more than 1,000 jobs at risk.

Restaurant workers, hotel staff, pub workers and many others in the beleaguered industry were hopeful that chancellor Rishi Sunak would announce substantive measures of support for a sector on its knees in his summer statement last month, but they were left sorely disappointed.

Meal deal

Instead of real action that could save the more than a million jobs that stand to be lost in the industry, Sunak offered only a glorified meal deal – call the Eat Out to Help Out scheme – which went into effect on Monday (August 3).

As part of the discount scheme, meals eaten out at any participating businesses Monday through Wednesday in August will be 50 per cent off up to a maximum discount of £10 per head including children.

Business will need to register to be part of the scheme. They will offer the discount directly to consumers, and each week in August, these participating businesses can then claim the money back, with the funds in their bank account promised by the government within 5 working days.

Announcing the scheme in July, Sunak said the government needed “to be creative” because the amid the crisis, “the moment is unique”.

“1.8 million people work in this [hospitality] industry,” he said. “They need our support and with this measure we can all eat out to help out.”

Token gesture

But both hospitality businesses and their staff are doubtful that the discount scheme will boost the industry in any significant way – after all, it is only valid for the month of August, and only on three days a week, meaning the scheme will only exist for a mere 13 days.

Jonathan Downey, who runs Street Feast and London Union in the capital, criticised the scheme as a mere token gesture from the government.

“If the purpose of the scheme is to encourage people back into restaurants, then it all helps but it’s nowhere near enough when so many have been terrified by this virus,” he told the Evening Standard this week.

“It may also be a cash bonanza for the big chains but the amounts involved for the smaller groups and independents are so token as to be meaningless. If this Chancellor doesn’t do something soon to address the issue of the mounting rent debt, half of all restaurants and two million jobs in hospitality will be gone by the end of the year.”

Unite hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson agreed.

“The Eat Out to Help Out scheme does nothing but line the pockets of the biggest hospitality employers including McDonalds and Wetherspoons. Even with 50 per cent off, workers who have lost their jobs or had their pay and conditions cut during this crisis by opportunistic employers cannot afford to “eat-out” at all.”

“What hospitality workers need is an extension to the furlough scheme till at least Christmas and for the government to take action against those employers who have taken millions in public funds through the Job Retention Scheme with no intention of retaining staff and are now using Covid as an excuse to offload thousands of loyal staff,” he added. “Employers like LGH Management who run Holiday Inns across the UK are terminating upto 95% of staff and having them re-apply for ‘Hospitality Service Expert’ roles in a blatant attempt to de-skill and attack terms and conditions.”

Unite national officer for hospitality Dave Turnbull also highlighted why the scheme falls short.

“The Eat out to Help Scheme is a short-term measure that will only be in place for the month of August – for only 13 days in total,” he told UniteLIVE.

“It certainly won’t prevent any redundancies that so many hospitality business continue to plough on with, and it won’t stop these employers from forcing workers in the industry to accept cuts to pay, zero-hours contracts and the decimation of their terms and conditions. If anything, the scheme will only contribute to the profit margins of large restaurant chains such as Pizza Express and the Casual Dining Group. It is an insult to our members if the chancellor truly believes that his scheme will benefit workers who desperately need real action from the government.”  

Unite secures meeting with tourist minister

Last month, Unite members in hospitality staged two simultaneous demonstrations in London and Belfast calling on the government to take action, and for the sector itself to stop making unnecessary redundancies while the government’s furlough scheme still exists.

A key demand of last month’s hospitality demonstrations was a formal meeting with tourist minister Nigel Huddleston MP to talk about the challenges facing the sector from a worker’s perspective.

Unite secured this very meeting this week, one which Turbull welcomed.

“We were pleased to be able to put to the tourist minister directly our concerns about the industry – about the impact that this unceasing wave redundancies will have on the long-term future of the sector,” he said. “Our message to the minister was that the government needs to take urgent action to stop mass redundancies, otherwise there will be no tourism industry left to enjoy after this crisis is over. The ball is now squarely in their court.”

Unite continues to call on the government to implement number of measures to protect workers in hospitality, including an extension of the job retention scheme with sector specific flexibilities for hospitality, as well as specific measures to protect the jobs of over 25s, instead of the focus being exclusively on allowing employers to access schemes for under 25s, which is open to abuse.

Unite is also calling for the National Living Wage to be increased to £10 an hour with no age restrictions and for the government to finally legislate to give workers 100 per cent of tips and service charge payments, as promised in October 2019.

Lastly, Unite has also urged the industry to create sustainable business models with a focus on retaining and upskilling staff.

By Hajera Blagg

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