By Rebecca Jane McMonagle
Employees of Regina Coeli House in West Belfast were dismissed on Friday, 25 February, just two days before their date of redundancy and seven weeks into their 24-7 work-in.
The workers occupied the hostel in January following news that the facility would close permanently on 27 February due to alleged structural issues, and a lack of money for repairs. The hostel’s management claims that these structural issues are outlined in an unpublished report still yet to be made public. The report has not even been seen by the Legion of Mary, who own the building.
The five employees each received a letter of dismissal on 25 February despite assurances made the day before by the Chair and a Trustee of the management committee that a decision regarding disciplinary action would not be made before 28 February.
Cruel attack on most vulnerable
This news of Regina Coeli House closure, and the workers dismissal, is a blatant attack on both vulnerable women and workers. Over the past seven weeks of the work-in, residents who chose to remain at the hostel were issued letters threatening eviction, despite concerns from these vulnerable residents around the lack of suitable alternative facilities. Regina Coeli House is the only female-only facility in Northern Ireland which offers shelter and on-site support, such as counselling services for women experiencing homelessness, mental health difficulties, addiction problems, and abuse and domestic violence.
As of last week, one resident remains at the hostel due to lack of appropriate alternative accommodation. These services are needed now more than ever; reports of domestic violence and abuse are at a 15-year high in Northern Ireland, with more than 32,000 incidents reported to the PSNI between June 2019 and July 2020.
Callous acts by religious order
The staff who continued providing these essential services to residents, a Legion of Mary volunteer, and a homeless woman were threatened with legal action from the management committee on week five of the work-in. Yet despite the threats, verbal abuse, and suspensions handed down from representatives of this committee, the workers continued their work-in.
The fact that a management committee of a religious, supposedly “charitable” organisation, who themselves have not been on-site during the first six weeks of the work-in nor had enquired about residents well-being during this time, would try to charge minimum wage workers, a volunteer, and a homeless person with legal action is a disgrace.
Then furthermore they dismiss these workers two days before their redundancy, denying them of their payments.
State must take over the service
Although Regina Coeli House is funded by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) through its Supporting People programme, the facility is owned by the Legion of Mary.
We cannot allow essential services such as those provided by Regina Coeli Hostel to remain in the hands of religious organisations, nor should the existence of these services rely on voluntary organisations, charities, or limited government funding. Unite the Union has called for the Legion of Mary to hand the building over to the NIHE.
The wide public support for the workers undertaking the work-in, and their success in keeping the hostel running ‘business as usual’ despite legal threats, clearly demonstrates the workers ability to continue to run the hostel democratically themselves.