An offer for library and leisure centre workers in Greenwich to take six months of unpaid leave, on the promise that they would have a job when they return, has been criticised by a union.
Unite, one of the UK’s largest unions, blasted the plans by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) for thousands of its staff to take an “unpaid career break” until at least April 2021, with the union renewing calls for those services to be taken back ‘in-house’ by local councils.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Unite said it feared that not enough permanent staff would volunteer for the “unpaid career break” offered in a letter to staff from GLL’s managing director Mark Sesnan. The union said it was concerned it would subsequently lead to “drastic” cutbacks in work offered to those on casual contracts.
However, GLL – which trades as Better – hit back at the union’s claims, calling them “totally misguided”, and pointed to unprecedented financial stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
GLL, a not-for-profit organisation spun off from Greenwich Council in 1993, runs leisure centres in more than a dozen London boroughs. It also runs libraries in Greenwich and Bromley.
Unite estimates that GLL has over 50 local authority contracts and employs 14,000 staff nationally – with about 70 per cent of these workers on casual contracts.
“Our strong belief is that there will be a lack of permanent staff volunteering, so those on already low-paid zero hour contracts will not be given sufficient work, if any at all,” Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said.
“The knock-on effect will be that staff left in the leisure centres will be expected to pick up the extra work, and that redundancies and closures will follow regardless. Mark Sesnan is now asking staff to volunteer to go a year without pay – disguising this as a ‘career break’ is the thinnest of excuses for anticipated job losses.”
The union accused the company of being in “real financial trouble” and said the “simple and straightforward” answer was for the services to go back into public ownership.
“Local authorities must not wait until the company goes bust with all the unemployment and disruption this will cause to council services. Instead, they must act now to save jobs and much-appreciated public amenities.”
A spokesperson for GLL said the organisation had offered all employees the opportunity to take six months’ unpaid leave and be guaranteed a position at the same salary on their return.
“We consider this a positive and proactive move to help mitigate the uniquely challenging environment brought about by Covid-19,” the spokesperson said.
“Unite’s latest press release is totally misguided and focuses on issues that are immaterial to the current situation; which is solely the result of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The spokesperson said the entire leisure industry, whether managed in-house by local authorities, or outside organisations, faced the same issues: lost revenue due to four months of closure, and now reduced capacity to comply with social distancing measures.
“This shouldn’t be a time for trying to create division, we should be pulling together as a country to find a way forward that secures public leisure facilities for the future,” the spokesperson said.
“GLL is working hard to try and keep as many public leisure facilities open as possible and to secure as many jobs as possible.
“It is hugely disappointing that Unite, rather than recognising the unique challenges the industry is facing and working with us to develop solutions, sees fit to criticise the efforts we are making to manage the situation caused by Covid-19, while also making unfounded and incorrect allegations.”
Most of Greenwich’s leisure centres reopened on 25 July following the coronavirus closure. Last month the council agreed an £800,000 support package for GLL, which included extending its contract with the organisation until 2031. Another council which uses GLL, Tower Hamlets, signed off a support package of nearly £600,000 last month.
Lachlan Leeming is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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