ESS, part of the multi-million pound Compass Group, has been branded the UK’s most “heartless employer”, due to the manner in which it is treating staff working on Ministry of Defence bases, who are being forced to sign contracts making them hundreds of pounds worse off or immediately lose their jobs.
Unite’s branding of ESS as heartless comes ahead of a debate in parliament this week (October 14) on the controversial fire and rehire policies being threatened by companies including British Airways and Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL).
The affected workers, employed on outsourced MoD contracts, primarily undertake cooking and cleaning roles; the majority are paid the minimum wage and are facing cuts in hours as well as a reduction in their working weeks.
The workers are facing a cut in their working weeks from the normal 52 weeks to 50, 49 or even 48. Some of the workers face losing up to £1,600 a year.
ESS’ approach is even more controversial than that of BA and HAL as it is telling workers to ‘sign or be made redundant’. Unite does not believe this is a genuine redundancy situation as the company has not issued either a HR1 or section 188 notice, or undertaken a genuine consultation process on redundancies.
The workers are currently being required to undertake 1-to-1 meetings with local managers and the responses to fears about impending poverty have been callous.
When members raised concerns such as: “I’m not sure how I’ll be able to afford my rent/mortgage”, “if I lose all this money I might have to use a foodbank” and “I’m on minimum wage as it is, what am I going to do?”, responses by management included: “you’ve got 10 days extra holiday a year” and “you may be eligible for Universal Credit, I can come across and go through the process with you and help you apply”.
Management have also said, “You’ll be getting a pay rise in April” although this neglects to make clear that this is the government’s planned rise in the minimum wage, which ESS is legally obliged to pay.
Unite lead officer for defence workers Caren Evans said, “ESS are seeking the title of the UK’s most heartless employers and in a crowded field they are strong contenders.
“They are using a false redundancy process to force workers who are already on the breadline to accept huge pay cuts.
“Unite does not believe this is a lawful process but ESS is relying on the fear and intimidation it can exert on workers on the minimum wage, to force these callous changes through,” she added.
“The fact that this is on MoD contracts and involves workers who are dedicated to care for our armed forces is simply appalling.
“ESS is seeking to squeeze every penny from these contracts and it doesn’t care about the service our armed forces receive or the effect it will have on workers,” Evans went on to say.
“It is even more appalling that the government and the top brass at the MoD are refusing to take action and are looking the other way as misery and exploitation is occurring on their watch.”
ESS are blaming the Covid-19 pandemic for the changes but its MoD contracts have been unaffected and the workers were required to keep working throughout lockdown.
It is not the first time that ESS has sought to cut the working weeks of low paid workers. The company tried to do the same thing to workers in the Gosport area, including at Fort Blockhouse, in 2017.
Unite took ESS to an employment tribunal on behalf of its members, for breach of contract. ESS was forced to accept that the cutting of the working weeks of its employees was illegal. It had to reinstate the working weeks and pay compensation to the workers who took the case, which was worth on average £1,900.
By Barckley Sumner