Following a collective grievance raised by Unite the Union members of MacMerry300 and Abandon Ship Ltd bars across Glasgow and Dundee, The Glasgow Guardian spoke to student-age Glasgow hospitality staff about the unfolding situation.
Grievances included lack of adherence to Covid-19 restrictions and procedures, as well as long-term issues involving staff pay. The Glasgow Guardian spoke to Ross Cameron, a worker at Abandon Ship Bar in Glasgow, who discussed the Covid-19 regulations. He commented: “It’s a bit odd that we’re still seeing people at the bar when there are no plastic screens up for the bar servers. All the bar seats are still really close to each other…”
Scottish government Covid-19 regulations that state from the 27 December onwards, “mandatory table service was reintroduced to venues serving alcohol for consumption on their premises”, with the exception of this being “only where there is a clear queuing system with appropriate distancing”. Ross continued, explaining that bar staff who had done lateral flow tests as close contacts were questioned by management: “It doesn’t make sense.”
On longer-term problems at the company, he said: “Some of my colleagues were getting bullied. They left the company because of that, and because their mental health was steadily getting worse and worse. It breaks my heart to see people that have such a passion for this industry leave because of stuff like that.
“Some of my colleagues were getting bullied. They left the company because of that.”
“It’s been a steady level of ‘bad’. There have been issues in terms of pay: some people have been on the wrong tax code, and again, we brought it up. We thought it would get sorted and it hasn’t. For the first three months, my entire team and I weren’t registered with HMRC. We were on emergency tax the whole time. When we finally got registered with HMRC, my colleagues and I got stressed out further when we got a letter from HMRC saying we owe several hundred pounds in tax.
“The vast majority of us were signed up to NEST [government workplace pension scheme] in October. While the NEST contributions are showing up on the payslip, if I log onto my NEST account, they’re not showing up.
“Sick pay hasn’t been getting paid out, and sometimes they will even pay your holiday pay, without your permission. Several members of staff at Abandon Ship Glasgow got threatened with not getting their holiday pay if they didn’t work their two weeks [notice], which is illegal. Those same staff, now that they’ve left, still haven’t received it.
“Ultimately, we’re not even asking for that much. We just want better, safer working conditions; we want to be paid properly, and on time; we want payslips that actually make sense. It’s heartbreaking for those of us that like hospitality, and care about doing a good job, to have to deal with this constantly. The tone was set on the first shift where we worked a 14-hour shift with no break. Our current general manager told us: ‘Just make sure you eat before your next shift.'”
“Ultimately, we’re not even asking for that much. We just want better, safer working conditions… It’s heartbreaking for those of us that like hospitality, and care about doing a good job.”
The Glasgow Guardian also spoke to another worker at Abandon Ship, who would prefer to remain anonymous, about the Unite the Union picket that took place outside the bar last Saturday. Following the uproar across social media about bar customers crossing the picket line, the worker told us: “It was definitely awkward catching the eyes of diners and drinkers inside. As far as I know, very few of them left the bar and many people were still walking in without batting an eye. It was quite saddening to see, and it gave the impression a vast majority of the general public don’t view workers’ rights – especially hospitality workers’ rights – as an important issue. While we have made no official call to boycott, it felt like a let down.
“However, there were plenty of folk who walked past who wanted to know why we were out there. We gave them flyers and told them a bit about what’s going on. We even had a few hospitality workers who really understood where we were coming from. Someone joined us and grabbed a flag. It really made up for the people inside the bar.”
Discussing interaction with the company owners, our source said: “The company is calling for us to cease the press releases, blaming it for low trade. We have had plenty of online support from people who say they will not go to the bars until we have the dispute resolved. The company fails to recognise that fact. Business will improve for them once they agree to stop victimising staff for unionising and improve our treatment company-wide.”
“Business will improve for them once they agree to stop victimising staff for unionising and improve our treatment company-wide.”
The worker emphasised: “There is no official boycott until we vote for it as workers. The minority of people not going into the bars are doing it of their own choosing. Our rep has been encouraging people to attend venues, but with cash tips and Unite forms in hand.”
MacMerry300 have also come under scrutiny after they closed, with “immediate effect”, one of their flagship Dundee venues last weekend, The King of Islington, which had 100% union membership amongst staff. In a U-turn move following widespread criticism of the closure, the company then declared that it would be re-opening the bar from Wednesday 12 January onwards.
A “MacMerry Workers Solidarity Action” peaceful protest took place today (Friday 14 January) in Dundee. One of the company owners, Phil Donaldson, urged staff not to partake in union action, stating in an email: “Trade is now on the floor and this protest may be the final nail that pushes us into administration with permanent venue closures imminent. I will urge everyone to not participate in anything that will be to the detriment of the way we trade.”
The Glasgow Guardian spoke to Kieron Kelleher, bartender at The King of Islington, who quit following the action taken by MacMerry300 at his pub. He commented: “My time at The King was an honour. I made the workplace my own. I built a bar, a customer base, a reputation, and a fantastic team.
“A bartender at The King of Islington, quit following the action taken by MacMerry300 at his pub…”
“The people of Dundee took great care of me and I spent just shy of two years building their brand as much as my own. Unfortunately there comes a time where the mistreatment of your friends just doesn’t add up [when deciding whether to] keep myself there. I only follow the lead of an owner who tells the truth.”
Chris Law, the SNP MP for Dundee West, has written to MacMerry300 and Abandon Ship Ltd regarding the grievances that have been raised. He said: “These allegations are very serious, and it is vital that staff can be heard and should face no repercussions for raising them.”
Better Than Zero, a collective that takes action against exploitative employers in Scotland, told The Glasgow Guardian: “The hospitality industry is rife with employers like this, who think they can get away with anything. What these workers are doing, by coming together with such a decisive majority, is showing their bosses that they’re wrong. This should be an inspiring example for precarious workers everywhere.”
A spokesperson for MacMerry300 has said: “We utterly refute the claims made and will be consulting with staff immediately to find out why allegations may have been levelled. We are, of course, also willing to discuss any genuine grievances or concerns.”
This article was updated on 15 January 2022 to include the following:
Phil Donaldson, Director of MacMerry300 has commented: “There is nothing we would like more than to be able to address the allegations levelled against us and to have the opportunity to take any positive action which may be required. We are willing to meet with staff and their union representatives anytime, and have been making this point since the allegations were made a week ago. My plea to colleagues is to come to the table. Bring Unite Hospitality with you and let’s have a constructive discussion so we can move forwards together and get back to doing what we all do well.
“I spoke honestly however in saying this last week has been incredibly damaging to trade, following almost two years of disruption for the whole sector as a result of the pandemic.”
The Glasgow Hospitality branch of Unite has set up a solidarity fund for MacMerry300’s workers, which can be found here.