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Orchard Theatre in Dartford slammed by union after dismissing 50 workers via email

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A workers' union has slammed a theatre after it allegedly sacked 50 long-serving staff members via email.

UNISON, which represents workers at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford, says communication was mismanaged and the rights of some to notice pay and redundancy pay was potentially ignored. Theatre bosses dispute the claims.

Phil Wellbrook reports from the Orchard Theatre in Dartford

South East regional organiser for UNISON, Simon Bolton, said: "The decision to dismiss this group of staff at a time when the government has extended the furlough scheme and provided a road map for theatres to reopen is simply appalling.

"It is short sighted as well as grossly unfair to the people who've been sacked without any consultation. This is no way to treat loyal employees, many of whom have given years of service.

"Dartford Borough Council should urgently review its relationship with HQ Theatres because I don't believe this decision reflects the values of the council."

The theatre received a £244,576 grant from the Department of Media, Culture & Sport's Cultural Recovery Fund in October, as well as a £30,000 monthly payment from Dartford council.

It also received significant funding from the government's Job Retention Scheme and business rate relief, according to UNISON.

The venue has remained closed and empty during the pandemic. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The venue has remained closed and empty during the pandemic. Picture: Barry Goodwin

But the playhouse in Suffolk Road said it released 42 people on casual worker agreements with the promise of new contracts being offered once it reopens.

It is operated by HQ Theatres on behalf of Dartford council.

Theatre director Lorna Strawson said: "As a result of the enforced closure of the theatre no casual work has been available at The Orchard since March 2020.

"We wrote to our casual workforce recently to explain that we need to update working practices in preparation for reopening post-covid.

"To achieve this consistently it was necessary to release hourly paid staff from their existing agreements; and to issue new agreements to those available to work when work becomes available.

Social distancing reminders put in place at the venue. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Social distancing reminders put in place at the venue. Picture: Barry Goodwin

"All casual staff who wish to return will be sent a new Casual Worker Agreement for their consideration ahead of reopening - and this was made clear in our communication."

The union claims staff learned of the decision by email and there had been no prior consultation.

Those affected are amongst the lowest paid at the venue, with many among the theatre's longest serving employees, according to UNISON.

Lorna added: "We value our casual workforce enormously and throughout this incredibly difficult period have made every effort to communicate and engage with them.

"No member of staff is disadvantaged by this decision (financially or otherwise) and, indeed, many of our casual workers have already been in touch to say that they understand the changes and wish to be sent a new agreement prior to reopening.

The Orchard Theatre in Dartford. Picture: Orchard Theatre
The Orchard Theatre in Dartford. Picture: Orchard Theatre

"We are preparing to welcome them back when we are in a position to do so.

"We would ask anyone with concerns to make contact with us directly as soon as possible so we are able to discuss things with them more fully.

"We are at a loss to understand why UNISON did not do so, on behalf of its members, before issuing their press release."

Last August the theatre announced casual workers would no longer receive furlough payments.

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