The pub chain JD Wetherspoon has denied it is “abandoning” its 43,000 staff and insisted it could not afford to pay them during the Covid-19 crisis until the company was reimbursed for their wages by the government.
The company’s outspoken chairman, Tim Martin, has faced criticism for playing down the risks of people gathering in pubs during the pandemic and insisting that the government was wrong to shut them down over the weekend.
He aroused the ire of workers and MPs after sending a video message to staff telling them they would no longer be paid after Friday while the company works out details of a “furlough” scheme under which the government will pay 80% of wages.
He advised them to seek work in Tesco, which is hiring staff to help it meet the country’s need for food delivery and distribution, if they needed employment in the meantime.
Rachel Reeves MP, the chair of the business select committee, said the decision was unacceptable, pointing out that companies may not receive government support until late April, leaving staff out of pocket until then.
Ian Hodson, the president of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union, said: “Tim Martin’s actions are shocking. He is ignoring the advice of the government to stand by your workers and instead abandoning them in their time of need.
“They need to pay rent, buy food and because of the low wages he’s always paid them will not have savings to depend upon. His selfish approach says unless the government puts money into my bank account today he’ll let the workers who have made him rich suffer. It is completely unacceptable.
“This country will not forget the way in which employers have treated their staff during this crisis. Now is the time for all workers to come together and oppose greedy inaction by millionaire bosses.”
Martin said Wetherspoon could not afford to keep paying staff. “Companies like Costa, owned by Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s, being owned by large multinationals, can afford to retain staff and commit to paying them, before details of the government furlough scheme are published,” he said.
“However, they are in a minority in the pub and restaurant trade. Most companies, including Wetherspoon, do not have the resources, while pubs are shut, to make this commitment and need to see details of the scheme in order to retain and pay staff, as the government has sensibly requested, rather than instigating large-scale layoffs.
“That may seem stark, but that’s the economic reality of the unprecedented situation in the UK today.”
In an earlier statement, Wetherspoon had blamed a “complete misinterpretation” of its message to staff, although it did not dispute that they would cease to be paid after Friday while details of the furlough scheme were finalised.
“As we understand it, tens of thousands of hospitality workers and others have already lost their jobs, but Wetherspoon is retaining all its employees, using the government scheme for the purpose for which it is intended,” said a spokesperson.
“Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin said to employees in a video that supermarkets were urgently looking for staff, since all trade from pubs, restaurants and cafes had transferred to supermarkets in the last few days.
“Wetherspoon has had urgent calls from supermarkets asking for help in recruitment. Tesco alone urgently needs 20,000 staff, we understand. Tim Martin said in the video that staff who wanted to work for Tesco should do so and they will be given first priority when Wetherspoon pubs reopen.
“Wetherspoon believes that the actions it has taken are responsible and sensible in the difficult circumstances.”