The UK Government has awarded a £14 million security services contract at the COP26 climate summit to a company which sacked dozens of workers just weeks before Christmas 2020.
Atalian Servest will liaise with Police Scotland, the UK Government and the UN on security throughout the November event. As part of a deal agreed with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the company also provided security services in June at the G7 summit in Cornwall.
The Suffolk-based firm has been branded “greedy and inhumane” by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), who pointed out it refused to furlough dozens of cleaning staff in London last December.
Nearly 60 employees in the city were left jobless or on significantly reduced hours. Many were forced to rely on food banks and Universal Credit.
Atlaian’s conduct was not unlawful but the IWGB, which campaigned on behalf of the London cleaners, said it was “shameful and unacceptable” that the company’s behaviour during the pandemic was being rewarded with a major public contract.
The union told The Ferret that Atalian has made nearly 150 cleaners redundant across the UK since the start of the health crisis. Atalian did not respond to our requests for a comment.
The UK Government declined to comment on the sacking of the cleaning staff as it did not relate to the COP26 contract. A spokesperson said the government has a robust procurement process for any company providing services and that all suppliers are expected to follow a code of conduct.
Atalian Servest provides facilities management services including security, cleaning and catering to both the public and private sectors. It is an indirect subsidiary of LA Financiere Atalian SAS which turned over more than €2.8 billion (£2.4 billion) in 2020.
The firm will be tasked with running a search area for people entering official venues at COP26, which will be held at the Scottish Events Campus (SEC) in Glasgow between 31 October and 12 November.
But Atalian’s actions during the pandemic have been criticised. The Atalian staff affected by the sackings and reduced hours had worked throughout both the first and second waves of the Covid-19 virus.
In April last year, openDemocracy found that 60 Atalian Servest employees were among a host of catering, cleaning and security staff forced to continue working at the Houses of Parliament despite the outbreak of the pandemic. MPs and Lords had been told to work from home and the buildings were almost empty.
According to the union, cleaners employed by Atalian were also made redundant at the Foreign Office, which awarded the firm the COP26 security contract.
Jackie Santana, an organiser at the IWGB’s Cleaners and Facilities branch, claimed that Atalian Servest has consistently “put its own profits above the wellbeing and livelihood of its key workers”.
She said: “Atalian Servest is one of the most greedy and inhumane companies and it has no regard for the wellbeing of its cleaners. It disposed of its key workers, despite the cleaners explaining the hardship they were going through due to the pandemic. Granting this awful company public money is shameful and unacceptable.”
Deputy General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), Dave Moxham, called on the UK Government to conduct “an urgent review of this and any other contracts where suppliers are in breach of the principles and practices of Fair Work”.
He said: “It is unequivocally the wrong sort of company to provide services for a major event at which Just Transition for workers and communities is such a central theme.”
Atalian Servest did not respond to The Ferret’s requests for a comment. It lists “integrity” and “sustainable development” among its values on its website, which notes the company “draws its strength from its viscerally entrepreneurial culture”.
The people section of the company’s website says: “Atalian Servest strives to be an employer of choice and to support a motivated workforce.” It continues: “To achieve this, we place great emphasis on the diversity, health, safety and development of our people.”
A company statement at the start of the pandemic said the firm had “compiled specific risk assessments” for its employees, and was looking “at ways in which we can help our employees, particularly those who are at high risk”.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “It would be appropriate for the company [Atalian Servest] to speak to those claims directly, as they don’t relate to their contract with government.
“The government has a robust procurement process for any company providing services, with all suppliers expected to follow the government’s supplier code of conduct.”
The RMT was talking to the company on behalf of members working at LNER who experienced disputes over pay and changes to contracts. A ballot for strike action by the union said that Atalian had “either ignored or shrugged off its concerns” at every opportunity.
Rows over workers issues are becoming increasingly prominent as preparations for COP26 ramp up. Unions accused Scotrail’s management of risking “national embarrassment” after it was confirmed that engineers would proceed with strike action during the conference.
Unite said workers had been left with no choice due to the rail operator’s failure to make a meaningful pay offer despite threats of a strike since 24 September.
Five SNP MSPs were accused of showing “bare-faced cheek” last month, after suggesting “London bosses” of the unions were being “unhelpful” in the way they were conducting the negotiations with Scotrail.
The strike action will take place for 24 hours on 1-2, 10-11 and 12-13 November. COP26 will take place between 31 October and 12 November. The strike will affect Scottish transport hubs including Glasgow Queen Street, Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley.
When workers were laid off last year businesses were only required to pay employee’s pension and national insurance contributions to place them on furlough. Workers were paid 80 per cent of their usual wage by the UK Government once placed on the furlough scheme.
Up to 25,000 people are expected to descend on Glasgow during the COP26 summit, including the Queen, US President Joe Biden, Pope Francis, and climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Around 10,000 police officers will be deployed on the city’s streets on each day of the conference. This will include Police Scotland’s firearms officers, dog handlers, mounted branch, search teams, and the marine unit.
Around 45 per cent of the officers will be drafted in from the ranks of Police Scotland, with the remainder coming from other UK police forces, British Transport Police, the Ministry of Defence and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary.
The SEC, which will host the main negotiations, will become UN territory and be guarded by armed UN personnel.
This story was co-published by The Ferret with the Sunday National
Cover image thanks to iStock/fantail