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High Life Highland aims to save jobs but non-contract workers hours at risk as union considers action

By Scott Maclennan

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Two High Life Highland staff, Chloe Mackay and Ryan Edwards, helping their community in Caithness.
Two High Life Highland staff, Chloe Mackay and Ryan Edwards, helping their community in Caithness.

Hundreds of High Life Highland (HLH) staff have been told to expect a 20 per cent cut in wages while non-contracted workers could lose their jobs in a move that may blow-up into full-scale industrial action.

The organisation runs a range of facilities on behalf of Highland Council including archive centres, libraries, leisure centres, museums and swimming pools, which were all closed in mid-March due to the pandemic.

The decision was apparently taken at a board meeting on June 18 and staff were informed by email last week.

Critics of the move have called it a “kick in the teeth” for workers, many of whom have been volunteering for the council throughout the pandemic.

More than 1200 HLH staff are on furlough with the organisation topping-up government support so full wages are paid. But this will stop in August in a bid to avoid redundancies.

Non-contracted workers have been told any “relief hours” they covered will either be substantially reduced or no longer available.

Last week it emerged the charity was forecasting losing £10 million of income, but its mitigation measures mean it is projecting a deficit of £3.3 million. It warned it was facing an extremely challenging period ahead.

GMB’s Paul Macpherson said: “We have refused to sign-up to this and we have walked away from negotiations.

“I believe that Highland Council has a part to play with funding as year on year every service they don’t want to pay for gets passed on to High Life Highland – music tuition would be an example.

“A lot of the staff have been volunteering at the council’s Covid-19 hubs and then to hear this – it is a kick in the teeth.”

Asked whether this would potentially lead to balloting to gauge views on industrial action, he said: “That is a likely next step.”

Councillor Glynis Campbell-Sinclair said: “This action has to be a body blow to all the dedicated Staff. After all their efforts, they are now being rewarded by being notified that HLH will be removing the 20 per cent top-up to the furlough scheme.”

HLH chief executive Steve Walsh insisted that staff remained his first consideration and that that talks with other unions were ongoing.

“There has been no breakdown in communication with the unions," he said.

"In discussion with the unions, agreement has been reached that the actual changes to the salaries will not happen until their pay at the end of August, therefore giving staff as much notice as possible to prepare financially.

“At the start of the pandemic we worked closely with the unions to implement a temporary collective agreement but this has now expired and is no longer in place.

"However, we have continued to liaise and work with the unions throughout the process and will continue to do so on all other relevant matters.

“As part of our recovery plan High Life Highland is taking positive steps to protect jobs by implementing measures that will allow the charity to continue to play an integral part across Highland communities as we look to bounce back and meet the challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Considering the huge loss of income, we are making remarkable progress towards mitigation.

“We would not be putting these measures in place unless it was absolutely necessary to help us protect jobs and the long-term future delivery of services.

"High Life Highland is particularly proud to have been able to continue topping up salaries as long as we have and these decisions have not been taken lightly.”

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