Leisure centre workers in Lewisham are to be balloted for strike action by their union over alleged unpaid wages and reductions in working hours.

A total of 31 Unite members at the borough’s five centres, run by council contractor Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL), will decide between August 27 and September 27 whether to take industrial action.

Unite claims wages owed have gone unpaid, as has annual leave, and workers have had their hours changed unilaterally, partly due to the closure of the Bridge Leisure Centre.

Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said: “Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) has ‘form’ in showing themselves to be no different to any other private sector employer.

This Is Local London: The Bridge leisure centreThe Bridge leisure centre

"The Bromley library dispute being the most prominent GLL one that Unite was involved with.

“The ‘worker-led social enterprise’ mask has slipped dramatically again.

"We have previously publicly stated that there is an over reliance by GLL on casual, zero-hour contracts, but the company has denied this.

“Yet, when returning from furlough, Lewisham leisure staff are now being told that their regular hours will change – and the managers are treating permanent staff as though they are on zero hour contracts.

“The closure of the Bridge Leisure Centre was a huge blow. In addition to the impact on staff, there is the detrimental effect on the community. This includes schools and charities who relied on the services at the centre to assist and help disabled children.

“The answer is staring Lewisham council in the face - take the service back in-house – it would be the best for all concerned the council taxpayer, the public and the staff.”

The union further alleges that contractual redundancy enhancements have gone unpaid.

The centres affected are Wavelengths Leisure Centre, Forest Hill Pools, Glass Mill Leisure Centre, and Ladywell Arena.

The Bridge Leisure Centre never reopened after the first lockdown as Lewisham Council deemed it too expensive.

Read more: Leisure centre will not reopen after lockdown after huge financial losses

A resident-led campaign narrowly saved Deptford's Wavelengths leisure pool, which was threatened with closure by refurbishment costs.

Lewisham Council announced in June that the pool will reopen later this year after major renovation works, but the flumes will be removed.  

GLL claims Unite has violated an agreement between the two parties not to ballot their members before attempting to resolve their concerns directly.

The organisation, which runs over 250 sport and leisure facilities and libraries on behalf of local authorities in London, further claims changes in hours are an unavoidable consequence of the pandemic, rather than choice.

A spokesperson for GLL said: “We are dismayed that Unite have chosen to break the terms of our 2020 agreement with them – namely, that they resolve matters with us directly before balloting their members on strike action.

“We will be looking into this as a matter of urgency and if any of these claims are substantiated our intention is to resolve them immediately.

“Changes to staffing hours have been created as a consequence of the pandemic rather than by choice.

“Despite Covid’s financial and operational challenges to all leisure operators and Councils, we are totally committed to working in partnership to provide the best possible leisure service for the residents of Lewisham.”

Unite bin workers are currently striking in Bexley over grievances with council contractor Serco, causing rubbish to pile up across the borough.

Read more: Bexley bin crews to focus on recycling rather than food as strike continues

Lewisham Council claims it is unable to insource leisure staff at the moment due to financial pressures, and has called on the two parties to negotiate.

Councillor Andre Bourne, Cabinet Member for Culture, said: “Despite huge financial challenges Lewisham Council will insource services when we can afford to do so.

“In the past three years we have insourced over 200 staff, our building maintenance team, our fostering recruitment, homelessness prevention and family support teams.

“We cannot afford to insource our leisure services because we do not have the money to do so.

“Since 2010 the Council’s budget has been cut by half, meaning that difficult decisions have to be taken about what we can afford to fund.

“We take very seriously our responsibility to manage the Council’s finances responsibly.

“Austerity has a devastating impact on our communities and we call on the Government to fund councils fairly so we can invest in services for our residents.

“In the meantime, I call on Unite and GLL to come back around the table and talk in the best interests of their staff and Lewisham residents.”

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