Restaurant workers brave the heat to protest ‘unfair dismissal’

Photos from the scene on Tuesday afternoon taken by Observer’s Shahein Fitzpatrick
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By Elesha George

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Eleven restaurant workers employed by Silver Square, trading as Melinis Restaurant in Jolly Harbour, have been laid off involuntarily, after apparently not hearing from their employers since the Covid-19 lockdown was announced in March.

They are said to be owed an accumulative sum of more than EC$300,000 in wages, salaries, severance and vacation pay.

The workers said they were informed in March that the restaurant would be closing temporarily because of the nationwide shutdown. Since then, they say they have received no formal word from the two men who operated the company.

In the blistering sun, on Tuesday afternoon, a handful of workers staged a picket in an attempt to draw out one of Melinis’ owners. About six of them stood in front of a St John’s restaurant waiting on Mark Totten who they believe to have some links to the establishment. It is not clear if Totten is currently in Antigua.

The person manning the restaurant said that Totten had not been there for the day and that he had been trying to reach him to address the picketers outside.

Shop steward, Romeo Aska — who has worked at Melinis for 17 years — along with two other female employees, told Observer “we have not gotten any word from the manager, we have not gotten paid for the last week we worked, we have not gotten the vacation money that we usually get yearly and the place has been closed”.

The workers said they believed the St John’s restaurant was connected to Melinis because furniture used at their former work place is now in the new restaurant. And in July, Melinis’ Facebook page started pushing advertising for the city-based eatery.

Observer understands that Melinis was a casualty of the Covid-19 outbreak which saw numerous businesses across the nation struggling to pay rent due to forced closures.

The employees have however said that the pandemic does not excuse the management for not meeting with them about the situation. They have also not received letters of dismissal and remain unsure about their severance and vacation pay.

“This business was the best business in Jolly Harbour for 17 years. We had all kinds of people come there, even the prince of England eat there,” the shop steward said.

“It’s the most flourishing business in Jolly Harbour and you just closed down and say you don’t have no money to pay the staff. It is wrong. What are we to eat?” he questioned.

Another employee – who gave her name as Ms Carter – said she had been employed with Melinis since its inception and she feels cheated out of 17 years of hard work.

“On the 22nd of March, I got a phone call from a staff member saying Mark says that we’re going to close because of Covid. After then, not even another word, not even a letter or phone call,” the distressed woman said.

Carter explained that she had always been a faithful and dedicated employee, telling Observer of times when the manager would call on her to come to work during storms or even when the country was under hurricane watches.

“I saw Mark a few weeks ago in the bank, Mark just looked at me as if he don’t know me. Not a phone call – that is unfair, real unfair,” she said.

The ageable woman is afraid that the Englishman will leave the island, and pleaded for the Chief Immigration Officer and the Labour Department to intervene on the workers’ behalf.

She said it has been very hard on her since the lockdown, explaining that without the letter of dismissal, she hasn’t been able to get assistance under the available food programmes.

 “I have bills to pay, I have my rent to pay, groceries. Right now, I’ve been living off my daughter giving me stuff to eat. I applied at places to get little food and I ain’t get nothing. Please, I need help,” she hollered. 

Melinis’ head chef told Observer that his name is Evans and that he had been employed there for the past 15 years. He shared that things have been “very hard” because no income is coming in.

“He told me that he would call me but I never received a phone call, he didn’t have a meeting with us to sit down and say ‘okay guys this what is going to happen, or this is what the situation is’. He just walked out and say ‘I don’t have no money’,” Evans said.

Samuel James, president of the Free Trades Union is representing six of the workers. He told Observer he has reason to believe that Totten is a regular visitor to the St John’s restaurant.

“In whatever way, we know there is a connection and we’re saying that we want the workers’ money and we want the workers’ money now,” he stressed.

James said it is, at the very least, disrespectful for the owners to blatantly ignore the workers without telling them how they plan to settle their debts and to claim that they simply do not have the money to pay.

According to the trade unionist, “that response is not acceptable and it is not a legal response. The law is, severance and vacation [have] to be paid, and that is all we are interested in now – for the workers to be paid”.

While James acknowledged that Covid created some challenges, he said too many employers are using the pandemic as a scapegoat, to the detriment of workers.

“I’m tired of everybody hiding behind Covid. I’m tired of employers talking about Covid. Some of the employers in this country have got to stop. They have been making profit for many, many years; now we have Covid and all of a sudden Covid is responsible for everything. Even for things that were due and payable to workers years ago – now Covid nullifies all that; but we are not accepting that,” he declared.

Totten could not be reached up to press time.

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