Scottish Tourism Workers’ League: Organising Scotland’s Tourism Industry
Over the summer, Scotland saw the return of its tourism sector following pandemic closures. Many decided to stay in the UK as a result of COVID restrictions, and tourists flocked to both rural spots as well as Scotland’s cities during festival season. With Tourism Minister Ivan McKee’s pledge to “lobby on behalf of the industry” and the Scottish Government funding advertising campaigns for the industry, Jon Heggie, founder of the Scottish Tourism Workers’ League, believes it’s about time that workers are centred and empowered in these discussions.
The Scottish Tourism Workers’ League is a loose organising network for tourism workers that began last summer with the help of activists from Better Than Zero and with the backing of the STUC. Jon states that “at the time there was a lot of concern that these seismic changes would come into the industry — and yet there was no collective identity among workers, and no solid network to resist changes that would be enforced by industry leaders.” In this context, the network aims to build a collective identity and ensure the workers have a voice in the future of the industry.
“It’s so fragmented, especially in rural Scotland; people are so isolated from each other. What we want to say to tourism workers is that you’re not alone and you’re all in this together. You may work in very different places and you may feel like you’re working in very different sectors but you’re subject to the same fluctuations and tourist traffic and you’re subject to the same patterns of precarity. We want to build more of that consciousness and more of that collective power.”
Jon notes that much of the conversation around the “recovery” of the tourism industry was “very much pro-boss and very much anti-worker. It was all about giving grants and bailouts to businesses without any sort of conditions attached”.
The lack of conditions meant that some bosses “were taking six-figure grants and then sacking workers and often evicting workers in tied accommodation as well”.
“The government can say ‘oh well you know, employment law has devolved to Westminster, there’s nothing we can do’ but actually, they could. Instead of spending all that money on an advertising campaign and doing the industry’s PR work for them, they should be using the voice that they have as elected representatives to say businesses should not be treating workers like this.”
The Scottish Tourism Workers’ League aims to ensure that the workers have a voice in any plans for supporting the industry. Jon says the government should be meeting with workers, not just bosses and that any financial support must come with conditions of fair work and fair recovery.
Tourism workers contend with a number of conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to their employers, not least of which is tied accommodation; a situation where a worker lives on property owned by their employer as part of their employment.
“Housing is ridiculously hard to come by in the Highlands and Islands, so many workers — especially in hospitality — live in tied accommodation, and during the pandemic, there were some quite high profile cases in the press of hotels just sacking and evicting all of the workers at once. We had a case late last year with a hotel that was just sort of evicting workers one by one week after week, so they didn’t attract headlines in the same way,” Jon states.
He notes that workers in these situations have workers rights but also rights as tenants, but often don’t know what those are and their employers shirk their responsibilities as landlords. The Scottish Tourism Workers League aims to empower workers by making sure they know their rights and building the collective solidarity necessary to enforce them.
They’ve also been facing bouts of fire and rehire — in particular workers being laid off and then coming back and worse conditions from before; for example, Jon’s own employer fired most of its staff and has been offering them sporadic and casual work. This has a knock-on effect on communities, particularly rural ones:
“There’s been a massive increase in the precarity of work and a loss of stability which is devastating for people’s lives and for communities across Scotland, especially in the Highlands and Islands, which is where we do most of our activism. There’s a housing crisis in the Highlands and Islands as well and this increasing precarity of work is making communities less and less sustainable as these changes go on.”
Rather than despairing at this, the Scottish Tourism Workers League see an opportunity for workers to demand that the industry be remade with their needs in mind. Jon views it “as a chance for workers to finally say ‘okay, we’ll come back but only on our terms’.” This doesn’t just mean better hours and pay; in many cases, it means envisioning sustainable models for tourism.
Communities are also impacted by the tourism sector. While they have little say in how it takes form, they suffer the effects of overwhelmed infrastructures that aren’t built or funded to deal with the influx of tourists.
“That’s part of the reason why we’ve kept it very nebulous and we don’t have a formal, rigid membership structure; we want communities as well as workers to feel like they’re part of the conversation,” Jon explains. “We also want to talk about sustainable tourism not just in this very vague, weak green tourism framework that this government has set out, but by actually listening to communities and thinking more about how we manage these tensions.”
The ways that the Scottish Tourism Workers League is organising workers to demand better of the tourism sector draws directly from those workers’ expertise. “There are loads of people in rural Scotland working in heritage and working as tour guides and they know the history and they know these stories and they tell these stories all the time.” These are stories about the historical and ongoing tensions between communities and capital, like this story about the forced eviction of the Isle of Rùm.
These stories act as consciousness-raising tools: “What we wanted to do was start telling these stories quite publicly and with as high profile as we could manage because we want people to join up the dots between the past and the present and we want people to see that Scottish History is full of examples of people who fought back against landlordism and won.
We want people to take inspiration from that and to identify that there were so many similarities between what happened then and what is happening now.”
The fight for tourism workers is a fight for Scotland’s communities, and that fight has been going on for generations. The Scottish Tourism Workers’ League’s work is relevant from Edinburgh to Skye; it is part of a long tradition of organising to put people before profit across the country.
Since conducting this interview, Ivan Mckee has agreed to meet at regular intervals with a Tourism Unions Group set up by the Scottish Tourism Workers’ League, which will include attendees from the STUC, representatives from affiliated unions covering sectors across the tourism industry, and workers from across these sectors.
They hope to discuss measures that the Scottish Government can take to address the issue of precarious work in tourism, and how to allocate resources to give tourism workers the skills and confidence to better navigate the industry.
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