Jerry Maguire, hospitality worker and Unite Hospitality member, condemns a shambolic Stormont which has failed to support workers, instead putting their health on the line.
It’s often remarked that a week is a long time in politics. But when Harold Wilson first coined that expression, he couldn’t have been aware of how just one week of Stormont politics can put years on one’s life.
Last week, as the four-week circuit breaker was coming to an end, Dr. Tom Black of the British Medical Association’s NI Council, warned that an extension of the restrictions was needed to slow the rise of COVID-19 deaths. He went as far as to say that a reopening this early would be an “act of vandalism”.
The Chief Medical Officer also cautioned that if restrictions were lifted it would undoubtedly lead to more deaths. Those tasked with acting on medical advice in the Executive have dithered in the face of these urgent and unambiguous interventions, adding to the anxiety and confusion for workers and small business owners across various sectors of the economy.
The DUP called for rolling back all restrictions related to the economy. They were not dissuaded one iota by the health warnings, which should leave us in no doubt about their priorities and their recklessness.
They used a ‘cross-community’ veto—intended to prevent discrimination of one community by another— to block an extension of the current restrictions, exposing the sectarianism at the heart of the Stormont institutions.
And yet again, the DUP exposed themselves as being primarily interested in generating profits for the few, even if that means sacrificing the longterm health of many other people.
Others around the Executive table haven’t covered themselves in glory, either. In an interview on Sunday, Michelle O’Neill was clear in her support for a phased reopening, while prohibiting the sale of alcohol, claiming that the Executive were united on this. Many were critical of this Sinn Féin approach. We had just recently surpassed 1000 deaths, hundreds of new cases were being reported daily, and hospitals were warning about capacity.
An Executive meeting was culled as other Ministers rightly acknowledged the lack of evidence to support the re-opening. This, plus an intervention by unions like Unite Hospitality, increased the pressure on Sinn Féin and by Wednesday they had done a complete u-turn, calling instead for an extension of the restrictions.
Any u-turn on this issue should be welcomed, but how much damage have they done by supporting the lifting of restrictions for as long as they did? Until the outcry was loud enough, they were also guilty of ceding to business pressure, if less blatantly than the DUP.
After a week of DUP recklessness, Sinn Féin’s u-turn, and endless talk of compromise on the question of community health, the decision was made to extend the circuit-breaker for a further seven days.
At that point there will be a phased reopening of the hospitality sector, while venues selling alcohol will be restricted until 27 November. Sinn Féin voted against the proposal, despite singing off a very similar hymn sheet only a few days previously. The SDLP abstained, and for their part, the Alliance Party preferred to vote for the ‘compromise’ proposals, rather than fight for the medical advice of the chair of the BMA to be adopted.
The shambolic nature of the week created an incredible amount of uncertainty for the sector as a whole, as none knew whether they could open their doors or not, whether to place orders for stock or if they have a shift the next morning.
Shambolic had come to define the Executive’s approach to the pandemic even before this latest development. The very reason we’re experiencing a second wave and the death count is rising is because the first set of lockdown restrictions were lifted too soon, in July, even before an effective tracing system was in place.
The Executive caved to business pressures and reopened, going as far as to promote financial incentives for people to leave their homes to mix with others in busy cafés, restaurants and pubs.
Schemes like Eat Out To Help Out were officially promoted and have since been connected to the surge in cases in the hospitality sector and wider society.
Much of the time bought by the first lockdown, when people largely stuck studiously to the regulations, was wasted. As we face a second wave – in winter no less – there has been no development of a mass test, track and trace system, and no significant investment to improve hospital capacity.
The establishment is currently presenting us with a false choice: health or wealth? Lockdown to save lives or reopen the economy to save livelihoods?
But the reality is that if proper financial support was provided by the Executive for people who have been impacted, to keep them safely out of non-essential workplaces, and the necessary test and trace infrastructure funded, then we wouldn’t have to make this choice.
We could get a handle on the virus, move towards eliminating it, while keeping people out of financial precarity. This would also have the advantage of allowing for a safer reopening of the economy, which is less likely to result in surges of the virus, and a return to more normal times, as we’ve seen in countries like New Zealand.
Stormont could do this but so far they have chosen not to. Instead of fighting for a zero-COVID approach, supported by the likes of Dr Gabriel Scally, they have adopted the dangerous mantra that we must learn to ‘live with COVID’.
The Hospitality Worker on the Scrapheap
Stormont, throughout the pandemic, has often used the hospitality sector as a bit of a punching bag. At the drop of a hat, the industry has had to open and close, and react to changing restrictions that are simply plasters on a gaping wound.
Hospitality workers have had their livelihoods repeatedly thrown into the air, with workers being laid off, furloughed, rehired (with some on worse terms and conditions), and fired. This situation is so rife that almost all workers in the industry have direct experience of these problems.
At the beginning of the first lockdown in March there was panic as many didn’t know where next paycheck was coming from.
By mid-March the line that “there is no magic money tree” was revealed to be a blatant lie. The Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak was now offering to pay 80% of workers wages with the remaining 20% expected to be provided by bosses.
Workers who had been laid off, and their unions, were fighting to be rehired but employers had used the closure as an opportunity to get rid of staff and reduce labour costs.
Amid the vacuum of leadership from Stormont this week and as uncertainty reigned, some hospitality businesses made clear their intent to reopen as the restrictions were set to expire.
Many of those businesses seeking to exploit the Stormont shambles were not acting in the interests of workers, despite what they may claim. And many of them were the very same ones who abandoned staff back in March.
Moreover they blatantly ignored how reopening against medical advice would put workers’ health at risk. Simon Hamiliton, ex-DUP MLA and current Chief Executive of the Belfast Chamber tweeted that there was ‘no evidence’ to back restrictions – a crass statement given how many families are grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19.
Workers’ health must be put before bosses’ wealth. It is that simple.
Bosses and politicians have used hospitality workers’ safety and livelihoods as a political football for too long. Their willingness to exploit the public’s outrage shows their clear contempt for working people. This is unacceptable. Workers must unionise and fight for their voice to be heard.
We must call for astrategy which seeks to reach elimination levels of this virus and protects workers and the vulnerable until it is safe to return to normal. A sector-specific job support scheme must be provided to cover workers for their loss of income as a result of closure.
This support cannot dip below 100% of full wages as many in the industry already struggle to make ends meet on minimum wage. The Executive must also issue support to businesses who commit to retaining staff, rather than using grants to line their pockets.
Upon plans to reopen we must call for a safe, phased and well-notified process where workers and their union representatives play an active role in discussions. Supports must still be available to alleviate those who may face cutbacks to their hours.
Hospitality workers are at the heart of society, allowing us all to socialise, relax and have a good time. We deserve to be treated with respect and, like all people affected by the pandemic, we should be provided with the proper financial support while all the necessary steps are taken to eliminate this virus.