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Industrial Whitbread's workers deserve their human rights

Are workers' rights too much of a commitment for one of Britain's largest hospitality companies, ask RHYS McCARTHY and BEN COWLES

Last week Whitbread PLC — the supreme corporate overlords of Premier Inn, Costa Coffee and a host of other prominent hospitality businesses with an annual turnover of £3 billion— pulled itself out of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) just 18 months after it signed up.

This prompted the ire of Unite which has tried for many years to organise workers in the hospitality industry, a sector riven with exploitation and abuse.

The union said Whitbread’s move was “a slap in the face to its 50,000-strong UK workforce, its customers and to workers in its overseas supply chain.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the ETI, the organisation describes itself as “a leading alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for workers' rights around the globe,” and envisions “a world where all workers are free from exploitation and discrimination, and enjoy conditions of freedom, security and equity.”

Because ethical trade is much harder and more complex than it sounds, the ETI works with corporations, trade unions and voluntary sector members to collectively tackle labour issues which “cannot be addressed by individual companies working alone.”

Organising in British hospitality is indeed difficult and complex and workers in the industry in developing countries often have more rights, a trade union voice and relatively better pay and conditions.

The hotel industry trade association the British Hospitality Association (BHA) is notoriously anti-trade union and against workers’ rights and increased regulation.

Unite has evidence of the BHA advising hotels on how to stay union free and it comes as no surprise that Whitbread, through Premier Inn, is a leading board member of the BHA.

Hotel giants in Britain base their extremely profitable business models on low wages, long hours, poor conditions and EU free movement which creates a reserve army of labour to tap into and exploit. 

This in turn produces a culture of fear, bullying and high staff turnover which makes it extremely difficult for trade unions to create a foothold, develop relationships with workers and organise.

When companies sign up to the ETI, they commit to adopting a base code of ethics, a set of nine commitments founded on the conventions set out by the International Labour Organisation.

These include the employee’s right to choose employment freely; to work in a safe and hygienic environment; to receive a living wage; to be provided with regular employment and to be free from excessive work hours, child labour, discrimination or harsh and inhumane treatment and the human rights to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

As a board member of the ETI, Unite took Whitbread’s joining in good faith and contacted the company’s HR director in July 2016 to discuss how it could implement the ETI’s policies in Britain.

What then took place was a combination of deliberately ignoring Unite’s requests and ignoring the union completely. It finally took a letter to the CEO with the threat of a formal complaint to arrange a meeting.

Whitbread told Unite that the ETI’s base codes did not apply to its direct employees but only to workers in its overseas supply chain. Thus, according to Whitbread, the 50,000 British workers in its hotel, restaurants and coffee shops are to be denied the human right to freedom of association and to form a trade union.

But workers overseas who pick the cotton for their Premier Inn bedsheets or the coffee beans which make a Costa Coffee latte can access these rights.

In November 2016 after refusing several requests by Unite for access to meet their members and staff at Premier Inn, the company offered — in what must be one of the more surreal and creative attempts at union avoidance — to bring in actors to pretend to be trade union officials to speak to their employees and then send the feedback to Unite.

A month later Unite informed the ETI that it would be making a formal complaint against the company for this bizarre suggestion and its failure to abide by ETI’s base codes and policies. The ETI offered to mediate the talks between the union and the hospitality giant but in March Whitbread declined.

Last April in a further and troubling development, Unite uncovered that Whitbread managers had been gagging staff from talking about trade unions while at work and were told to immediately notify a manager if they were approached by a trade union.

That same month, a sub-committee of the ETI board clarified that the ETI’s codes and policies apply to all workers directly or indirectly employed by its members. Whitbread then agreed to the ETI’s offer of mediation.

It soon became clear, however, that mediation would have nothing to do with the ETI complaint or its base codes.

So, instead Unite pointed to Whitbread’s own human rights policy on the freedom of association, which states: “We recognise that our people, without distinction, have the right to join or form trade unions.”

To be able to join a trade union is a statutory right, to be able to form a trade union is not and Unite was eager to explore how this progressive policy could be practicably achieved. Whitbread then pulled out from mediation before it had begun.

Last month Unite’s assistant general secretary Steve Turner wrote to Whitbread’s CEO Alison Brittain with a series of questions regarding her company’s human rights policy, International Labour Organisation conventions, as well as Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and ETI policies.

Whitbread’s belated response was to avoid answering any of the questions put to them but instead indulge in sophistry.

In August Whitbread notified the ETI that it was resigning. This was confirmed to Unite in writing on September 8 and was announced to the ETI board last week.

Following the fallout  from its resignation, which has seen a drop in its share price, Whitbread’s best attempts at damage limitation have produced the kind of doublespeak which would not be out of place in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.

Whitbread claims it is “100 per cent committed to ensuring ethical and sustainable practice across [its] global supply chain.” But the company forgets to mention that this does not apply to its British workforce when it comes to the human right to freedom of association, and to trade union rights.

Neither does the company appear to realise how cynical it appears to join an organisation like the ETI, only to resign when it begins to actually mean changes have to be made and it is faced with the prospect of abiding by ETI codes and policies.

This sham at trying to appear ethical is fast becoming a public relations disaster which may ultimately cause long-term damage to Whitbread’s brands. One thing is for sure Whitbread workers deserve better.

Rhys McCarthy is Unite’s national officer. Ben Cowles is the Morning Star’s deputy features editor.

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