'We cannot let another bad boss win'

Unite’s Wayne King: standing up to Heathrow bosses ‘about fairness in challenging times’

Reading time: 7 min

In a corner of our sprawling capital, a massive daylight robbery is underway, but you will struggle to read about it in the papers or hear about it on TV or radio.

At this very moment, Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) is busily embarking on a project to redirect the wages of thousands of low-paid, frontline airport workers away from stretched family budgets and what is not a well-off community into what the airport’s CEO John Holland-Kaye has repeatedly boasted are the airport’s over-flowing coffers.

It is a staggering, audacious hustle, another act of boardroom greed, and another case of the workers paying for management’s gross failings, but it is getting little press attention from a media inured to the all-too frequent failings and bad behaviour of big business since the financial crisis of more than a decade ago.

Workers have been told that that they have to sign an agreement that they will lose a quarter of their wages – a whopping £8,000-a-year – or be sacked. 

At the most recent round of talks (Thursday 29 October), Unite travelled more than the extra mile to resolve this dispute with a proposal that totalled £142.2 million of cuts – but still this generous offer was not enough for this rapacious management.

On what planet is the CEO if he thinks a London worker – or any worker for that matter – can lose 25 percent of their income and get by, but this is exactly what 4,000 workers employed by HAL are being ordered to do. 

The security officers, engineers, airside operatives and firefighters are fighting back against the plans to ‘fire and rehire’ them on inferior pay and employment conditions which could mean some of them losing their homes and struggling to put food on the table for their families.

And it is not just the workers directly affected who will suffer from this latest example of rampant and irresponsible capitalism from a company; in this case HAL that has a cash mountain to tide it over for at least next two years and cushion it against the worst ravages of the pandemic on the aviation sector.

Undoubtedly, this wage raid will have a negative ripple impact on the economy, estimated to hit within a 10 mile radius of the airport, as workers have less money to spend in their communities.

With less to spend, there will be an adverse impact from Uxbridge, the prime minister’s constituency, to Staines; and from Hounslow to Slough.

Restaurants, pubs, cafes, newsagents, shoe repairers and florists, already under financial pressure due to Covid-19, could be in the firing line as consumer demand slumps further.

Recent Unite research has shown that 84,400 people are directly employed at the airport, which hosts 320 businesses making it the largest workplace in Europe. One in five of local jobs are based at the airport and 40 per cent of the workforce in the surrounding area is employed in the aviation sector.

Given these concrete economic facts, Unite is calling on HAL to exercise a stronger sense of social responsibility as the company admits it is in ‘a very strong’ financial position.

We have also asked the boardroom to lead from the top, show that we truly are ‘all in this together’ by handing back their bonuses, surely the least they can do if their business is struggling as the CEO confusingly attempts to assert.  You won’t be surprised to learn that this request received no response.

This week is a crucial one as on Thursday (5 November) the ballot of our Heathrow members for industrial action closes. We have no wish for confrontation, but there has to been no constructive dialogue by the management – and we are determined to stand with these workers in this David and Goliath fight.

Local Labour MPs, religious leaders and the wider labour movement have been very supportive of this group of workers, whose jobs may not be glamorous, but are vital for the smooth running of this ever-expanding international transport hub.

The continuing solidarity gives our members confidence. They know that they have right on their side in a dispute which has been very much of the HAL’s management choosing as the bosses prefer to genuflect to shareholders, while the wages of those least able to afford them are hammered.   

To be clear, the issue here is not a lack of money, but how it is shared out. It is about fairness in challenging times.

Holland-Kaye has boasted that the company had cash reserves to carry it through the next two years at least – or 15 months with no passengers using the airport which was not forecast to happen. This was despite posting a £1.5bn loss in the first nine months of this year.

HAL has got its priorities wrong with generous pay-outs to shareholders, including the Qatari royal family, one of the world’s wealthiest families, and gold-plated remuneration packages for top HAL executives.

There seems to be one rule for the shareholders – and another more brutal approach to those who can least afford cuts to pay.

HAL’s greed and cruelty has plunged our members into horrific, unwarranted worry and uncertainty in the run-up to Christmas. 

This is a community living in fear, fear of imminent in-work poverty and fear of retribution from their employer if they speak up. Taking industrial action is an act of immense bravery by any worker, but the power and wealth imbalance at play here is tremendous.

They have their union with them every step of the way – but this invisible workforce of key frontline workers need you on their side too.  Please stand with them. Shout about this wage theft from the rooftops.

This week, the workers, exhausted by a management closed to compromise, will decide whether or not industrial action is the only route open to them, and the national media may, at last, pay them some attention.

What is happening to this workforce is criminal and must be called out. These workers deserve to have this reminder of the unfairness of modern Britain recorded.  And it is a reminder that it could also happen to any one of us as opportunistic employers seize their moment and the government looks away.

For each and every one of us, this is a fight this workforce must not lose. We cannot let another bad boss win.

By Unite regional co-ordinating officer Wayne King

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