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Employment

‘Christmas will be a sad time’: The keyworkers left out in the cold

Despite the government furlough scheme, multi-million pound company Atalian Servest has sacked keyworkers just weeks before Christmas and left dozens destitute as hours were slashed.

Kelly Jimenez had worked with Atalian Servest for four years before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe. But after months of putting herself and her family at risk as a keyworker, she has been left to rely on food banks ahead of Christmas.

The 44-year-old single mother is one of dozens of cleaners sacked or facing massive cuts to their contracts after the multi-national corporation refused to make use of the government’s furlough scheme, leaving them destitute and many now out of a job.

The human cost is huge, with food banks now the main source of support for Kelly and her son, while others now face having to apply for universal credit this winter amid a continuing recession and ongoing worldwide health crisis.

“I don’t have enough money to cope with bills and rent, and all that my son needs. There is this constant pressure, and I feel guilty because I am a risk to my son.” – Kelly Jimenez, 44.

This is in stark contrast to Atalian Servest, an indirect subsidiary of LA Financiere Atalian SAS which last year had a turnover of £3billion. The company announced in September they would consult staff over changes to their contracts, which saw many made redundant and others with their hours dramatically reduced.

Nearly 60 staff were affected, with some dismissed, and others left with just a quarter of their previous contracted hours. 

One of those likely to be left without a job is 40-year-old Oscar Garcia, who had worked with the firm for more than four years. 

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After working throughout the pandemic, Oscar initially saw his hours cut before being dismissed from his job, with no offer of furlough. Despite an ongoing appeal, Oscar said Christmas will be drastically different for his family this year, as he struggles to pay bills and rent. 

He said: “Financially and emotionally this has been a struggle. I had to face the cut to hours, then continuing to risk my life, before being dismissed. 

“I had to move house, I couldn’t afford to pay for my old place and now I’ve had to apply for Universal Credit. 

“I have two kids that depend on me, because of this I’m not going to be able to have a Christmas as we would before. My children and I are affected, as this Christmas will be a sad time for us. Not a happy time for joy as we gather today as there won’t be much to share.”

Atalian Servest have been contacted for comment.

While not all staff have lost their jobs, the significant loss of income from hours being cut has meant some staff have been forced to turn to charities and other services to survive. 

Like Oscar, Kelly also continued to work following the start of the coronavirus pandemic, working from March to May before being initially furloughed. 

The 44-year-old, whose 15-year-old son is asthmatic, is now back at work on a reduced contract and said she was terrified she would bring the virus home to her family, even losing some of her hair due to the stress. 

Like Oscar, Kelly barely has enough money to pay bills and rent due to the loss of income, now relying on food banks to provide for her son. 

Kelly said: “I don’t have enough money to cope with bills and rent, and all that my son needs. There is this constant pressure, and I feel guilty because I am a risk to my son. I’m a single mother so I don’t have anyone else who can help me, or to have a support bubble. It’s been a really tough time. 

“I went through a similar situation to Oscar, but this is like many other workers as well – many of us are scared to speak out. People have told us there may be some retaliation, but I have a union who will defend me.” 

But now the sacked keyworkers are fighting back against their corporate bosses after putting themselves in harm’s way throughout first and second waves of Covid-19. 

The company has been told to urgently reinstate the workers, and place them onto the government’s furlough scheme, which would require around five per cent of wages to be covered by the employer. 

“My children and I are affected, as this Christmas will be a sad time for us. Not a happy time for joy as we gather today as there won’t be much to share.” – Oscar Garcia, 40

Of the nearly 60 staff affected, 15 are represented by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain’s (IWGB) as part of the union’s cleaners and facilities branch, who have launched a campaign to see the staff reinstated. 

More than 100 letters have been written to Atalian as a result, but concerns remain the staff will be left in perilous financial circumstances ahead of the festive period. 

Andrea Agesta, a caseworker with the union, said: “This process has affected at least 50-60 employees – most of them had been working through the whole pandemic and they were still asked to go through this process. 

“The outcome we want to see at this point is for all people who have been dismissed during this to be reinstated and furloughed until March. We have requested the sharing of hours of employees and for some to be placed on flexible furlough. 

“We are waiting for an outcome, but I’m feeling pretty negative about it – they have been refusing us for over a month. They’re not prepared to put anyone on furlough at this point.”

Union representatives emphasised the dangers facing workers being made redundant during the current pandemic and economic crisis, and emphasised the need to fight back against decisions such as this. 

Jacqueline Santana, IWGB organiser, added: “This is a multi-million pound corporation who are putting their profits over people during this pandemic. This is unfortunately very common and we must fight against this. 

‘The fact that the furlough scheme isn’t compulsory means that Atalian has chosen to not give workers dignity and respect during the pandemic and the redundancies are a choice they have made. That’s the problem we are seeing with the government giving so much discretion, even though these companies can pay. 

“Workers shouldn’t have to suffer through this winter. It is incredible that they need to be applying for Universal Credit to put food on their tables, and even then it’s not enough.

“This dehumanisation has real effects for some of the most precarious workers like Kelly and Oscar so we really want to be heard and put this out there, and have people support us.”

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