From the beginning of 2015, leisure centres formerly managed by Belfast City Council have been outsourced to Greenwich Leisure Limited. Although GLL is registered as a charitable social enterprise and claims to reinvest its surplus back into service provision, the company is winning an ever increasing number of contracts by slashing wages, staffing and training while paying its directors exorbitantly. GLL is now present in over 40 UK councils and employs more than 8,500 staff, approximately 70% of whom are on zero-hour contracts.
Since taking over the Belfast leisure facilities, there have been repeated warnings that cuts are resulting in health and safety risks that could impact on service users, e.g. the use of untrained poolside lifeguards and staffing levels below emergency evacuation. In May 2016, Unite’s members took strike action to defeat a GLL threat to downgrade workers’ pensions. The shutdown was total across the city and management quickly reversed course. But the cost-cutting agenda has continued apace, with a two-tier workforce developing between former council employees, and newly recruited staff. The closure and reopening of Andersonstown leisure centre with existing staff replaced by lower-paid new recruits will extend the two-tier workforce structure.
GLL’s price hikes have excluded users in many deprived areas and led to the likes of Avoniel leisure centre becoming the preserve of the well-to-do. Last week, GLL corner-cutting was again highlighted by Unite who exposed a failure to drain a pool after a diarrhoea episode, and then a separate incident where a pool was reopened while shallow following draining. The long-term solution must be for Belfast City Council to end their austerity-led outsourcing and instead invest in improving the quality of leisure services.