Tuesday, 6 May 2014

We are sick of low-wage local employers

“We are sick of works-shy locals” was the banner headline in the JEP (03.05.2014) front page with a story of two St Aubin restaurant owners lamenting the absence of a work ethic in the local labour force. It was also an opportunity to blame stubbornly high unemployment on a benefits dependency culture. This is all great ideological stuff but what are the real issues?

There is an inherent contradiction between the recently approved Interim Population Policy (P10/2014), designed to restrict migration to a net +325 and the interests of employers, keen to continue employing immigrants as a source of inexpensive labour.

It was to be expected that employers in hospitality, which requires large numbers of essentially seasonal staff, would start complaining once the screws were tightened. The Control of Housing and Work (Jersey) Law 2012 is being used to restrict employers’ recruitment licences and strip out excess capacity. In fact hospitality employers don’t want population controls, as a regular supply of readily exploitable labour is essential to their profitability.

Blaming locals and saying they don’t have the work ethic to work hard, is a way of disguising the fact that employers want a workforce that does not complain about poor treatment, low wages and long and often anti social hours.  Immigrants are certainly not lazy; were they so they would soon be fired.

Could it be that the local labour force is justified in not wanting to work for the low wages being offered that migrants from other EU countries are forced to accept? If employers paid better wages and treated their staff better, then locals might find their jobs more attractive and stay.

Murray’s and Mash!

One of the employers featured in the JEP article was Murray Norton the owner two St Aubin restaurants, Murray’s and Mash!. Mr Norton has recently found himself facing a number of claims through the Jersey Employment Tribunal by disgruntled Romanian staff complaining of poor employment practices and an arbitrary hire and fire culture.

For the sake of transparency, I would disclose that I have been advising a number of these Romanian staff and represented them in the Jersey Employment Tribunal.

The Breakfast Chef

The most recent case to reach the JET was of a chef from Murray’s suing for unpaid wages and holiday pay as well as notice pay after being summarily dismissed.  He was paid £7.50 per hour.

In the case of Brailescu v Murray’s Limited, Eduard Brailescu, a chef, was summarily dismissed in September 2013 after not turning up to a morning shift, even though he had contacted the employer the previous evening to give notice that he would be unable to attend. His reason for missing a shift was that his landlord required him to vacate his room and the new accommodation he was moving to that Friday evening suddenly fell through, obliging him to search again urgently. 

Mr Brailescu advised the Assistant Manager and his Saturday morning shift was easily covered by rearranging the work rota between the head chef and another chef. 

When Murray Norton and his wife, then on holiday in France, heard that their chef was missing a shift, they gave instructions to their Assistant Manager to fire him and immediately reemployed another chef who had worked for them previously, to start on Saturday afternoon.

When Mr Brailescu asked Mr and Mrs Norton for his month’s wages to the date of dismissal he was refused.

Mr Brailescu succeeded before the Tribunal this April only in respect a judgment for unpaid wages and holiday pay, which at the time of writing, remains unpaid by Murray’s.

The kitchen porter who overslept

In July 2013 a Romanian kitchen porter working at Mash! and earning the minimum wage of £6.53, overslept and missed his morning shift after his alarm failed to go off on a mobile with a flat battery. Having charged the phone, he rang to apologise and was told not to come in that evening, instead to attend the next morning. He did so and was summarily dismissed without notice. No wages for hours worked were paid or money in lieu of notice. The employee brought a case before JET for unpaid wages which was settled out of court.

The waitress

A Romanian waitress employed at Murray’s on a full time permanent contract of employment was put under pressure to sign a new short term contract that would have terminated at the end of the season. The waitress refused, but was given notice and dismissed on the same date as her proposed temporary contract would have ended.

The point here is not to single out an individual employer, as the treatment of immigrant staff in this fashion is not uncommon. Mr Norton no doubt has a different version of events. Word has it that employment relations have improved dramatically; new comprehensive contracts of employment have been issued and chefs now recieve a reasonable £10 per hour wage.

The myths

It is surely a myth that locals are all going to be taken off the unemployment register and fill vacancies in tourism. Would locals want to have seasonal jobs and then try to survive through to the next season? These types of jobs are never discussed at the level of government. What security should they expect to have, subject as they are to seasonal variations?

Immigrant workers are additionally vulnerable by virtue of their accommodation often being tied to their employment, living either on site or in lodging houses owned by the employer. Complain and one looses not only ones employment but also ones accommodation.

Locals, who know the score as to what the norms are and what is acceptable treatment, would not tolerate the hire and fire mentality of some employers. Immigrants by definition are the least connected and do not know to whom they might seek redress. When one is forced from necessity to work, then one is less likely to complain.

The Barman

As another story of recent injustice is that of an 18 year old Romanian working as a barman in St Helier Yacht club. One evening he had to endure 20 minutes of abuse from a drunk who he refused to serve on licensed premises. This was not the first time the drunk had behaved in this fashion. He happened to be a friend of the licence holder, whom he telephoned and complained. There may be no connection whatsoever, but a few days later the barman gets the sack for no apparent reason. This might have been a case for an unfair dismissal action, however the barman did not have the qualifying 26 weeks employment. He could be dismissed without notice, good or bad.

No doubt this blog will upset certain well connected individuals, however someone has to stand up to such poor employment practices.

“It’s a form of modern slavery” was the reaction of a Romanian bar person to whom I recounted these stories, of which she was all too familiar. Even so, this woman intends to own her own bar in Jersey very soon. She tells me business in Romania is too corrupt and arbitary to make a success. Who would criticise this sort of enterprising individual intent on improving themself ?