The Highlands are heading for further winter redundancies as local tourism businesses shed jobs during the latest wave of coronavirus, compounding the hollowing out of the essential migrant workforce caused by Brexit, campaigners have warned.
Unions are reporting an increase in people being sacked rather than furloughed, with many of those laid off being EU nationals who are now forced to leave Scotland with no guarantee they can return after Brexit. With European workers fundamental to the Highland economy and society, this is likely to compound what analysts have described as the demographic timebomb facing the region.
The Scottish Tourism Workers League is calling for the Holyrood government to make business grants conditional on job retention after hearing “daily” from workers who have lost their jobs.
Jon Heggie, the organiser of the league, said: “At the beginning of lockdown, workers across Scotland won security by coming together and demanding that their bosses use the furlough scheme. With bosses across the tourism industry – in sectors like hospitality, heritage and tour guiding – sacking and evicting workers instead of furloughing them, we’re now supporting a new wave of workers to do the same.
“Workers in this industry stick together. We started organising with workers in Oban and Inverness-shire, and now we’re hearing from people across Scotland. Recently, there’s been a marked increase in contact from workers from EU countries as we approach Brexit. Tourism workers are fundamental to Scotland’s future, and deserve better.”
The league was set up in the summer by tourism workers to support each other in disputes over employment and accommodation. Those in the Highlands and Islands were particularly vulnerable: when the Coylumbridge hotel in Aviemore sacked at least 12 staff in March, making them homeless from tied accommodation just after the first lockdown was imposed, many did not realise they had rights as private tenants. The hotel later blamed the sacking and eviction notices on an “administrative error”.
Recent analysis by Highlands and Islands Enterprise has found unemployment increasing faster across the region than the rest of Scotland – 118% compared with the Scottish figure of 95% – and almost trebling among young people. Previous research for the Federation of Small Businesses found 45% of tourism and leisure employers in the Highlands had EU staff in their workforce, compared with 20% for the whole of the UK. While some businesses have argued that current layoffs are seasonal, 91% of non-UK EU nationals employed by businesses in the region are permanent staff.
Niall McLean, a councillor for Fort William and Ardnamurchan, said he was saddened by the job losses, particularly as younger migrant workers are essential to sustaining the local population.
“Our tourist industry could have a very bright future due to the worldwide love of Scotland, our landscape and people. Scotland needs to be in a position to invest in our offerings and provide long-term job security in the sector. And with a large number of young people choosing to work in the industry, the tourist sector is key to the survival of our communities”.
In early December there was a local outcry when the Fisher’s hotel in Pitlochry made about 20 staff, most of them from EU or EEA countries, redundant and asked them to leave their accommodation.
Fionn MacCumhaill, the managing director of the Castle Hotel Group, which owns Fisher’s, said he was “a generous employer”, but had let go 17 part-time seasonal workers after being denied government grants because supporting the staff through the furlough scheme was unsustainable.
Although immediate eviction notices were withdrawn after union intervention, many have since returned home to Poland, Spain, the Czech Republic and Hungary, with no guarantee they can return after 31 December.
Bryan Simpson, an organiser for Unite Hospitality, said this case was far from unique. “Hundreds of migrant workers have been left in the lurch by xenophobic immigration policies aided and abetted by the heartless actions of unscrupulous employers … As the region most reliant on hospitality and migrant workers, the Highlands can ill afford a situation where those same workers are put off or even legally prevented from returning due to the actions of multinational hospitality employers.”
John Swinney, the local MSP and Scotland’s deputy first minister, said there was significant government support in place to ensure businesses could continue to employ their staff.
“It is also the case that the majority of the affected workers are from countries within the European Union. Without a job or a place to stay, they have been forced to return to their home country. As a result of the end of freedom of movement, it may well be the case that – through no fault of their own – they will be unable to return to Scotland.”
Martin Kovács: ‘Scotland really does rely on people like me’
Martin Kovács came from Hungary to Scotland to work in tourism in 2018. “This country was perfect for me. I came to love the people, the atmosphere, and the big cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh,” he says.
He started work as a barman at the Fisher’s hotel in Pitlochry in October, but was “absolutely shocked” to receive his redundancy notice, and to be told to leave his staff accommodation earlier this month.
“The hotel treated their staff well, so this came out of the blue, in the middle of a pandemic and with Brexit and Christmas not far away,” he says.
“We were given 12 days to vacate our staff accommodation after which we would be evicted. The company refused to re-furlough us, claiming they couldn’t afford the 5% employer contributions.”
Without savings, Kovács worried about how he would survive but, following pressure from Unite, he has been able to remain in his digs for now, although he has been told that there is no prospect of the hotel reinstating him.
Since then, he has applied for the EU settlement scheme, and universal credit, which will tide him over as he looks for work.
With a university degree and certificates in tourism and hospitality, he says he has been struck by how much Scotland relies on workers like him. “When I got my first job in a hotel in Loch Lomond, I was asking why so many staff were from the EU. Scotland really does rely on people like me, and we bring something positive to the country.”