Rock-bottom morale

As NatWest announces voluntary redundancies, UniteLIVE investigates why so many bank branch staff have had enough

Reading time: 7 min

Bank branch workers are among the forgotten heroes of the coronavirus crisis, with many travelling into work even at the height of the pandemic at great risk to their lives to provide a vital service to their communities.

As UniteLIVE highlighted earlier on in the pandemic, after speaking to one branch worker back in May, bank branches had queues out the door even as the majority of businesses were shut and people stayed at home.

NatWest job cuts

But thousands of bank branch workers – despite all their hard work and sacrifice – may feel they have not been given the recognition they deserve a time when that’s seen their morale hit rock bottom.

This week NatWest announced plans to cut 550 full-time retail jobs throughout its bank branch network, as well the closure of a London office.

But these cuts were all made on a voluntary redundancy basis – the bank said it had sufficient numbers of staff apply for voluntary redundancy so that no compulsory redundancies would be made.

Unite estimates that once part-time roles are considered about 800 people will be made voluntarily redundant.

Voluntary redundancies

While Unite has welcomed that no one at the bank has been forced out of a job, Unite national officer for finance Rob MacGregor said the union made a startling discovery.

“NatWest employs just over 8,000 in the retail network, and more than 2,000 people have applied for voluntary redundancy which is quite spectacular,” he explained. “In London alone, almost a quarter of their workforce has applied for voluntary redundancy.”

MacGregor noted that the surge in voluntary redundancy applications was a surprise on many levels.

“This isn’t the first round of voluntary redundancies that the bank has undertaken – there have been many over the years – and perhaps more crucially the surge is unexpected because of the economic position we’re in now. We don’t believe that all those who have applied for VR are near retirement and so are working in their last job.

“Even in an economically buoyant time when you can move easily from one job to another, these would still be alarming statistics,” he added. “But given the scale of the economic downturn, and the fall in GDP and the fall in employment, I think this raises serious questions of NatWest.”

MacGregor told UniteLIVE that he believes morale and motivation are so low among the workforce across the bank’s retail network, that people have simply had enough.

“A lot of these staff who have applied for voluntary redundancy would have worked throughout the pandemic,” he explained. “While everyone was working from home or moving to remote working, many bank branch staff came into work, and travelled on public transport to serve customers, even during the peak of the pandemic. And in many of the high streets up and down the country, some of the only locations that were open were the bank branches, with queues outside the door.”

Just as NHS workers now are asking for a pay rise for all their hard work and sacrifice, other essential workers rightly believe they should be rewarded for their efforts in supporting communities across the UK during one of Britain’s darkest times.

“In NatWest’s case, we as a union asked the bank to provide some sort of recognition payment for the contribution that people had made and they refused to do so unlike Lloyd’s Bank, which made a small payment to 40,000 employees across their business,” Rob said. “NatWest declined our proposal. So I think they have a serious problem with motivation and morale reflected in the number of voluntary redundancy applications. I may have been surprised by the over-subscription in VR applications but reps who I spoke to weren’t – they say so many people are fed up by how they’ve been treated that they want to go.”

MacGregor says he believes morale will even further plummet for those who applied for but were denied voluntary redundancy.

“People don’t apply for voluntary redundancy on a whim. It’s something that they’ve thought through, discussed with their families and have made that huge mental leap – to go through that process and then be denied can be very disheartening.”

Fighting for the future

Still, MacGregor added that Unite is there to support all their members at NatWest and across the financial sector come what may.

“We will be ensuring that the process of redundancies is truly voluntary – that people get to choose their futures. We will also be continuing to oppose any potential proposals of bank branch closures or compulsory redundancies at any bank.”

NatWest today justified making hundreds of job cuts in its retail network by saying that the decision was in response to what it called “changing customer behaviour”.

While MacGregor told UniteLIVE that there is no denying that the pandemic has triggered an increased move toward internet or remote banking, the pandemic has also revealed another, just as important truth.

“What the pandemic has also demonstrated, because that’s where all the queues were, is that there is a strong demand for community-based financial services,” he said. “And the banks need to not lose sight of that. They have a duty to support communities with local banks. So there is absolutely no green light for branch closures or other swingeing cuts of that nature.”

He added that Unite will continue to campaign across the financial sector against any knee-jerk responses to the economic crisis precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We don’t want employers to use the pandemic as an excuse to dramatically cut costs because actually this is about the long-term survival of the finance sector and not a short-termist reaction to one year’s set of very difficult results, which we know they will be – as they will be in every other industry.

“We are demanding that the sector stay the course and not resort to the slash-and-burn approach that banks took at the height of the financial crisis when so many jobs were cut,” he added. “Of course at the time, it was the people who had nothing to do with the actions that brought about the financial crisis who ended up paying the most.

“The paradox now will be that those who stepped up to the plate and actually supported communities by providing banking services amid a global pandemic may pay with their jobs and their livelihoods — if the banks follow the same approach they did last time. We will oppose this tooth and nail. We need a vibrant and viable bank branch network in this country – and Unite as ever will be fighting for this now.”

By Hajera Blagg

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