COVID-19: Cineworld faces claims UK staff ‘treated with contempt’ as chain reveals reopening plans

Cineworld has revealed plans to reopen screens in its biggest markets, including the UK, but said nothing about how it will staff cinemas after effectively axing up to 45,000 workers six months ago.

The world’s second-largest cinema operator temporarily laid off staff – almost 6,000 of them in the UK – last October as movie releases including the latest James Bond adventure were pushed back due to rising COVID-19 restrictions.

It used a statement to the City on Monday to confirm its Regal US operation was to operate again from next month – with its 127 cinemas in the UK due to follow in May.

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The company also announced, ahead of full-year results due later this week, that it had agreed an exclusivity deal with Warner Bros.

But the update made no mention of the workforce it needs to operate the business of screening movies.

Staff in the UK had complained about a lack of engagement from the company in the run-up to losing their jobs or incomes in October.

Cineworld argued then that it had no choice but to shut down screens – given the lack of clarity over how long pandemic restrictions were likely to remain in place.

The cinema workers were offered redundancy or unpaid leave, according to campaigners who said that many of those who took the latter option had since been forced to leave in search of an income.

The Cineworld Action Group, which was created by staff before the closures, told Sky News on Tuesday that people who had taken redundancy were being barred from making a return for at least 12 months.

It further claimed that Cineworld had been forced to find new employees as too few staff remained to cover reopening.

"Throughout the pandemic we have been treated with contempt by the company and there is much to be done to rebuild trust between the company and staff," the group said in a statement.

It demanded a safety-first approach, a living wage and union recognition for returning employees.

Sky News has contacted Cineworld for a response to the allegations – and on the employment status of cinema workers and any plans to rehire. It has also been asked to respond to the claims about former staff being barred.

Its results on Thursday are set to confirm a horror show of a year for 2020, with analysts firmly expecting Cineworld to slump into the red to the tune of around £1bn.

The company’s action to shore up its finances included seeking debt waivers, taxpayer support and securing a $750m (£552m) funding lifeline to ensure its survival.

Against that backdrop, shareholders approved earlier this year an executive bonus plan that could see chief executive Mooky Greidinger net £65m in three years’ time – subject to certain targets being met.

Cineworld shares, which opened 5% higher, were later trading more than 7% down on the day as investors digested the terms of the company’s deal with Warner Bros.

Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said of its performance: "Cineworld’s share price plunged 86% between February and October.

"But after it grabbed hold of fresh financial lifelines and vaccine rollouts lifted the curtain on a more positive picture, its share price has staged a comeback, rising by around 350% since its low.

"A swift recovery will be crucial given the company is saddled with high levels of debt but there are fears some movie fans may have got a little too comfortable watching releases from the comfort of their sofas, and might be slow to return to the big screen."

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