All over the world, workers are fighting back against employers seeking to profit during the pandemic. Sometimes this has taken the form of strikes to close workplaces and protect health. In others it has taken the form of struggles to save jobs, as in the case of JD Weatherspoons, where pressure from workers and their unions has helped to save 43,000 jobs.
And sometimes this has taken the form of businesses taking the opportunity to slages wages or conditions, undercover of the crisis.
Last week staff at Pure Spa & Beauty, an Edinburgh-based company with chains across the UK, were told by the CEO Becky Woodhouse to accept zero hour contracts or resign. The workers at the Silverburn branch refused to accept the ultimatum. This account of what happened, written by Pure workers, was first published on the BetterthanZero blog.
We are the workers at Pure Spa & Beauty in Silverburn. Last week Pure’s chief executive Becky Woodhouse issued an ultimatum to all staff across the UK in light of the coronavirus crisis, demanding that we either sign a zero hour contract or resign. We were unwilling to accept this false choice: by resigning we would be losing our claim to redundancy payment, and by going onto zero-hours contracts we would lose our claim to our existing hours and pay. The government had clearly issued a statement saying they would release news of support for businesses, and that workers should not be laid off during this interim period. We came together to demand clarity and support from Pure. Instead of this, the company replied with repeated deadlines for signing the zero hours contract, all of which passed without consequence. Defeating this ultimatum gave us strength to stick to our collective position.
When the government announced 80% wage support, we wrote to Pure asking that we be allowed a choice between remaining on our existing contracts and receiving full pay, or be offered redundancy. We have seen many examples of companies in the UK keeping their staff on full pay with government support, and want Pure to do the same – one of our members has worked for 8 years at Pure and many of us have families to support.
When we reiterated our demands, Pure’s director and Becky Woodhouse’s partner Michael Lumsden made the bizarre threat that communicating via a representative that we had elected as a group could make us liable for damages. Meanwhile he spoke directly to the Sunday Times implying that the company might be able to revise its position on zero hours in light of government support. However in all communication with employees he had insisted that workers had to sign the zero hours contracts We decided to join the GMB union, and we also felt that it was the right time to speak to the media about our side of the story, to let other workers know why unity is so important.
On Tuesday morning, Pure capitulated. They offered to pay us 100% in March and 80% thereafter, with no change to our contracts. We stuck together, and this represents a significant victory.
These are hard times for businesses and workers. From the beginning of this crisis, we have stuck together as a group in the face of uncertainty. All we are demanding and working for is what we deserve and what our families need: full pay, with 80% paid for by government and 20% from Pure.
Becky Woodhouse is proud that Pure was ‘Employer of the Year 2019’ and promotes her ‘core values’. She is also upset about the lack of investment in ‘female entrepreneurs’, and said women should #askformore. Well that’s what we are doing. If she would look for just a second she would realise she has pure gold at Silverburn. She should be working with the women who have actually built the company and built up clients to get everyone through these next few months safely.
Our message to workers who are in uncertain positions is this: get together in a Whatsapp group and work together to demand what you all deserve. Don’t expect your boss to do it for you. We want to negotiate to get the best for all of us, not be dictated to. Instead of turning on each other we are sticking together through thick and thin and we’ll always remember that in the toughest of times we stood together, and together we will win.
Conter urges workers facing similar attacks to contact the BetterthanZero, the STUC or the requisite union for their industry. Losses during this crisis are not inevitable and are being successfully defeated here and around the world.
Picture courtesy of Pexels