By Chris Stewart
Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union (QUBSU) workers have unionised and taken protest action against the university’s decision to take them off the Job Retention Scheme back in July. This callous decision has left workers without any payment since August. In the middle of a public health crisis, QUB has condemned their workers to unemployment and poverty.
In a survey of union members, carried out by Unite’s hospitality branch, 65% of these workers have been unable to make rent/mortgage payments since July. 45% told the union they had lost their living accommodation as a result of losing income – many being made technically homeless in the process. These decisions have brought huge amounts of uncertainty and stress to these workers, in an already extremely difficult time for the mental health of all workers.
Faced with all this, and with a total lack of communication from management, the workers looked to organise and form a union. The workers are demanding the reinstatement of all affected staff members to the existing Job Retention Scheme, with pay backdated to the date they were removed from the scheme on 31st July. They are also demanding that QUBSU, a multi-million pound institution, top up furlough payments to 100% of normal wages. The university is more than capable of meeting this demand. No worker should pay the price for this pandemic.
With the 30th November deadline for reinstatement to the JRS fast approaching and a lack of communication from management, the workers held a socially distanced protest on 24th November to put pressure on Queen’s management. Along with the protest, a public petition was launched by the union that received over a thousand signatures within two days, indicating the widespread support for the workers in their struggle.
QUB bosses have been eroding the working conditions of their staff for years. Their rapacious pursuit of casualisation and zero-hour contracts should be seen for what it is – a direct attack on workers’ rights. Throughout the course of this dispute, the students’ union staff have been in contact with University & College Union members at QUB, who themselves have fought against casualisation by taking strike action in recent years. This kind of solidarity is welcome and necessary if the students’ union workers are to win victories in their struggle.
QUB’s horrendous treatment of these workers reflects the reality of work on a zero-hour contract, and how this kind of casualisation leaves the lives of workers totally at the whim of their employers. We fully support Unite’s hospitality branch, who represent many young workers in the sector, in their fight for a ban on zero-hour contracts and for a real living wage.
Young workers, including those who work in hospitality, have been some of the most affected by redundancies and real wage cuts. Young workers getting organised and fighting in their own interest will be a huge inspiration to young people across Belfast and beyond.
The Socialist Party interviewed Jessica Lawrence, QUBSU worker and workplace representative for Unite’s hospitality branch, to discuss the current situation and the action taken by the workers.
What was the impact of Queen’s management’s decision to take workers off the Job Retention Scheme?
“I think the impact of the decision to remove us from furlough is three-fold. Obviously, it impacts us all financially. Leaving us without an income for around three months has been extremely difficult for pretty much all of the staff. 74% of our members said that they relied on this job as their main source of income. Even harder still is the possibility of those of us in hospitality trying to find new roles in this sector, since this is one of the main industries impacted by Covid restrictions.
Leaving us financially destitute also brings up problems surrounding mental health. To live during a pandemic is tough enough, it’s even harder to know not only is your employer not doing anything to help you out, but the pressure then to go out and find alternative work when there is a perfectly reasonable option through the JRS is really just awful. For a university who stresses the importance of good mental health, to remove income for students already struggling during this pandemic is nonsensical.
Finally, there’s the aspect of not being respected by your employers that will have an impact on workers. It is quite clear that whilst Queen’s are happy enough for us to work the bar and stock the shelves during their busiest periods to make them profit, they feel as though we are not entitled to be treated as actual human beings when it comes to affording us pay parity. Other departments within QUB have been furloughed, and will continue to be furloughed – so the question really is, what makes the Speakeasy and QUBSU staff so different?”
It has been great to see SU workers stand together and fight this, and through the response to the petition we have seen there is widespread support for your actions. What made you and your co-workers take the decision to join a union?
“I think there are a few different reasons why we decided to approach and join a union, but the main one really revolves around communication from Queen’s and upper management.
A few of the union reps decided to approach Unite after they went to Queen’s themselves to ask for clarity regarding their future employment and income, and were given vague answers with no staff input. There were issues regarding the opening of the Speakeasy being cancelled in a few days’ notice, and staff were only informed a very short time via email before the statement was released on social media.
The strength and power that unions have are unbelievable, I do think that if we tried to take this action ourselves without a union we wouldn’t have gotten very far. As young people, with many of us still students, to go up against your employer and university is risky, so by joining a union we thankfully had an extra layer of protection. I think the support from the union has been great as well, it’s all well and good for workers to discuss the grievances they have with their employer on a personal basis but to know from an external source that these problems are valid really validated everyone’s feelings.
I personally work in the SU Shop so I wouldn’t have known that the staff in The Speakeasy felt the exact same grievances I did. It’s really great to have the solidarity.”
Now that Queen’s management have disgracefully refused to place staff on furlough, essentially saying they are happy to leave workers in this dire financial situation leading up to Christmas, what are the next steps for fighting this?
“Not sure how much I can reveal about the next steps forward, but trust me when I say we aren’t going down without a fight!
The first step we’re going to take is appealing the decision made by Queen’s, and hoping that in the appeals process they do take a little more care with our grievance instead of seeing us all as numbers on a spreadsheet rather than people who work in their facilities.
We’ve seen some incredible action taken by those in Manchester University and how their occupation forced the university to give £12 million back to their students after reducing their rents by 30%. Changing the minds of university management is possible. There are many avenues we can go down in terms of next steps, but all of them will involve an escalation of what we’re doing now.
The workforce within QUBSU are an extremely talented, creative and hard-working group of people who are ready to do whatever it takes to get our message across to Queen’s: Treat your staff with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Do you have a message for any other workers who are facing similar problems with their employers and don’t know what to do about it?
“I think the main message I would give to workers who are in similar situations to us is, ‘know your worth’.
We know we are worth so much more to the university than the zero-hour contracts they give us. We facilitate the student experience throughout the year, and love what we do. Some of the staff have worked in QUBSU for two/three/four years and have obviously stuck around because they love the work, what we don’t love is how management treats us.
If you believe that there are problems at your workplace, I promise you another co-worker is already thinking the same thing. Unionising our work place has made us all realise the power we have, even if Queen’s don’t see it that way yet. Join a union!”