'Liverpool's potential is huge'

Eurovision may be over - but Unite's UnionVision Liverpool hospitality campaign is only just getting started

Reading time: 9 min

The city of Liverpool may have made upwards of £40m from hosting this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, with UK and overseas visitors spending millions in hotels, pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues.

It’s an economic boon that any city should be proud of – but just how much of those untold millions have landed in the pockets of hospitality workers themselves?

Unite Hospitality’s UnionVision campaign began last week in Liverpool to empower hospitality workers to ask themselves this very question – and to do something about it, and not just during Eurovision but throughout the year.

Hospitality workers from across the city attended the UnionVision launch, many curious to find out how Unite could help them change their workplaces for the better.  

Sheer power of saying no

Unite Organiser Caitlin Lee (pictured below) urged Liverpool hospitality workers to stand up and demand more from their employers.

“Millions of people will walk away from Liverpool this week telling their friends and family what a fantastic time they had – the drinks they had, the food they ate, the service they were given.” she said. “No matter what city you travel to, for whatever reason, it is hospitality venues where memories are made. None of this would happen without hospitality workers.”

It’s a cruel irony that an industry loved by so many treats those whose labour it relies on so horrifically, Caitlin went on to say, highlighting the “lack of respect, lack of wages, lack of workers’ rights that should be universal” that dominate the sector.

But there is another way — as Caitlin and other Unite hospitality activists know all too well.

Caitlin told of how she and her colleagues employed by a hotel in Glasgow quickly organised online through Unite to fight hundreds of redundancies at the beginning of the pandemic– and through their hard work and determination, they managed to stall the job losses for three months until the first lockdown ended.

“We held them back despite them paying tens of thousands of pounds on employment lawyers to get rid of us – and we did that through the sheer power of simply saying no, that we weren’t going to put up with this,” Caitlin said.

Confidence to fight back

Unite Lead Organiser for Hospitality Bryan Simpson (pictured below) highlighted the extraordinary growth in Unite hospitality membership since the pandemic, with the numbers of new members in the sector doubling in a scant 18 months.

He emphasised that this rise in membership occurred even as the sector experienced nearly 600,000 job losses over the same period – such was the anger that hospitality workers across the UK collectively felt.

And they turned this anger into action, Bryan noted, as he highlighted several major wins Unite hospitality members have secured in recent years.

In one example, a concerted Unite campaign during the pandemic led by hospitality members – many of them as young as 17 years old – forced Marriot group hotels to reverse its decision to effectively sack 1,500 casual workers at over 60 hotels in the UK.

“Because of our campaign, 1,500 mostly migrant, mostly young women workers were reinstated,” Bryan said. “Not only that, they all received wages backdated to the point when they were initially effectively terminated; and not only that, they received 100 per cent of their wages covered on furlough, not the 80 per cent minimum.”

In another major win for Unite’s hospitality sector, more than 600 catering workers on zero-hours contracts in Glasgow successfully saved their jobs after the employer, Compass, initially decided to sack them via a Facebook post.

And in a stunning victory for fair tips, Bryan told of how hundreds of workers at a luxury hotel in Loch Lomond organised through Unite after they discovered their tips were being pilfered to top up chef and management wages.

Thanks to the workers’ campaign, which included organising through WhatsApp groups and garnering national media attention, they successfully clawed back a stunning £138,000 in tips, with workers receiving up to £2,000 in lump sum payments.

“We’ve got the highest union membership there than in any hotel in Scotland, and from this win, we’ve got meeting and events workers at the hotel joining like wildfire and now also having access to tips,” Bryan explained. “We’ve got grounds maintenance workers also joining, and they’re now pushing for £12 an hour. This really set a precedent that gave people the confidence to fight back.”

‘Everyone has a nightmare story’

Unite Hospitality’s UnionVision launch event was as much about highlighting the union’s wins in the sector as it was about sharing the horror stories that many working in the hospitality sector have experienced.  

“Everyone has a nightmare story,” Unite hospitality activist and hotel worker Fraser (pictured below) told the event, highlighting how employers take advantage of workers’ goodwill.

Fraser, who is only 19 years old, said that he first got more involved as a Unite member after he discovered that he was getting paid fifty pence an hour less for doing the exact same job as a colleague who was only one year older than him.  

“I couldn’t for the life of me work out why he was on 50 pence more an hour than I was,“ he said. “It got back to the manager that we were talking about it, and he took us to one side and told us to stop talking about pay; that if we had any problems to come to him. How would I have even known about the problem if we hadn’t talked about pay?”

Fraser highlighted how workers are “guilt-tripped” into not taking their breaks, being asked to come in on a day off, or being asked to stay late after a shift.

“If your boss texted you and asked you to come in to do a full eight-hour shift for free, you’d tell them to get lost,” Fraser explained. “But every time we skip breaks which we are legally entitled to, those breaks add up, and that’s exactly what we’re doing – working for free. Companies are making millions of pounds from our free labour.”

Billie, a worker employed by agencies to do shifts at varies venues and events in Liverpool, highlighted his own ‘horror stories’ that showed just why Liverpool hospitality workers are in desperate need of strong unions.

Billie, who is disabled, told of how many of his shifts were cancelled or changed last minute, including a shift at the Eurovision Village, the official fan site of the Eurovision Song Contest.

“I was supposed to start work at 10am until 5pm, but then I get a last-minute notification that I’m now expected to work from 4pm until midnight,” he said. “They expect me to pay out of pocket for an Uber, which at that time of the evening, with all the price gouging going on during Eurovision would have cost me £30 or more. Had I done the earlier shift, I could have used my disabled person’s bus pass and not paid a penny to get home.”

Billie spoke too of being forced to work without breaks, and of his wages being withheld for more than two months after a brutal 12-hour shift that he worked during the Grand National. When he eventually did get paid, he only received half his wages. Billie, who is also transitioning, told of how he has faced prejudice, being intentionally ‘dead-named’ in one instance by management.

Billie told UniteLive that he was thrilled about Unite’s UnionVision event.

“It’s fantastic that Unite is trying to organise in the hospitality sector,” he said. “I honestly didn’t even know that there was a union so dedicated to hospitality.”

The power of a city

Many more workers are about to find out the force of Unite Hospitality as the UnionVision campaign aims to light a fire of unionisation in Liverpool, the wider North West and beyond.

Unite hospitality activists and members at TGI Friday’s demo in Liverpool on Thursday, May 18

Highlighting the success of Unite Hospitality’s Glasgow branch, Cailtlin emphasised the importance of organising within cities and regions.

“The bigger collective power of a city is so, so important,” she said. “If you’ve got five members in a restaurant, three at a hotel, and two baristas at Starbucks – how much of the city does that already cover? I can say with certainty that employers live in fear of our Glasgow branch, because it isn’t just 20 workers demanding the real Living Wage in one workplace – it’s 2000 across the city.”

Bryan agreed.

“We need to realise how important this city is to the rest of the country,” he told the UnionVision attendees. “Liverpool is a union city, and if we build a branch here that’s linked into Manchester, then eventually Preston and then north Wales, we could have such a strong region that it’s competing with Scotland; it’s competing with even London in terms of membership and activism. The potential of Liverpool is huge – we just need to galvanise it.”


The Eurovision Song Contest may be over, but the driving force that is Unite Hospitality in Liverpool and the wider region is only just getting started, as our film below highlights:

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Later in the week, the UnionVision campaign hosted a number of workshops to give workers in Liverpool practical advice about organising their workplaces.

The campaign also mobilised a demo outside TGI Fridays in Liverpool city centre, where dozens attended to demand that TGI Fridays reinstate free meals for low-paid staff working grueling 10-hour shifts.

Commenting, Unite rep and TGI Fridays worker Jess* hailed a petition that has garnered more than 10,000 signatures.

Thanking those who supported the campaign, she urged workers to join the union and “remember the power we have collectively – we can build on this if you join”.

“What we do next is crucial to the outcome of this campaign,” Jess went on to say. “We have the chance to improve our working conditions for the better, and we can only do it with the support of the union. Let’s show the bosses that we won’t back down until we have what we deserve.”

If you want to get involved, find out more on Unite Hospitality’s webpage.

By Hajera Blagg

Film and photos by Lizzie Titherington

*Name changed to protect privacy