Heathrow set for summer of strife

Workers voting with their feet to reject poverty pay as survey reveals security officers leaving in droves

Reading time: 4 min

Heathrow Airport Ltd (HAL) is set for a shock exodus of security officers, according to a confidential survey of Unite members at the airport. The survey of over 750 security officers revealed that one in three are planning to leave their jobs within the next six months, while almost half of respondents are unsure whether they will continue to work at Heathrow.

A large scale exodus of security officers would create enormous pressures on HAL to deliver security services and avoid the capacity problems that beset the airport last year and resulted in it having to suppress demand and cap passenger numbers.

Around 1,400 security staff are currently on strike over a below-inflation pay offer from the airport. In recent years, HAL has paid out more than £2 billion in shareholder dividends and approved an 88 per cent pay hike for its CEO – taking his salary to £1.5 million a year.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “The treatment of security guards at Heathrow is leading to their mass exodus. This survey reveals that many have had enough of gruelling shift work for low pay and are planning to leave.

“Heathrow can well afford to put forward a satisfactory pay offer to our members and this survey clearly demonstrates that is in the airport’s interests to do so. How can Heathrow justify a pay rise from £800,000 to £1.5 million for its CEO while they insist on keeping their own workers on poverty pay?

“Unite will continue to defend workers and ensure they win the pay rises they deserve.”

The Unite survey found that security officers are leaving the job due to a combination of low rates of pay and a tremendously onerous working environment:

  • More than eight out of ten say they are worse off than last year
  • One in four say they have been forced to cut back on essentials (food, housing, energy)
  • One in six say they are deeper in debt after borrowing money from friends and family

The nature of the job is also a push factor:

  • Two out of three report that they have been verbally abused by passengers in the last year
  • Nine out of ten staff say the irregular shift pattern leaves them permanently tired at work
  • One in three say constant shift work has adversely affected their physical health and family life

HAL has been struggling to fill security officer roles at the airport since last year when flight volumes began to return to normal. As a result, all of the security officers operating at Heathrow’s Terminal Four, which serves major airlines including Air France, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, are employed via the employment agency ICTS.

Unite regional coordinating officer Wayne King said, “Unite members are having to borrow money and cut back on essential spending, including food, to make ends meet on their poverty wages.

“Is it any wonder so many are looking to leave when they see it’s bonanza time for the CEO and the shareholders? Think about it.”

According to Unite research, since 2017, the average remuneration of HAL workers has fallen by 24 per cent. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, HAL fired and rehired its entire workforce, resulting in most workers suffering serious pay cuts.

By Ryan Fletcher