THERE was little festive cheer for Santa and his elves at the Gunwharf Express Grotto this Christmas after they have been failed to be paid on time for the second month in a row.
The actors and puppeteers who worked at the grotto are furious after being owed thousands of pounds in wages by Grotto Hire UK Ltd.
Grotto Hire UK operated the attraction at Gunwharf Quays.
The situation is not confined to Portsmouth with grotto employees across the country also owed money by the Hull-based company.
The staff, who were due to be paid on January 10, are now concerned that they may not be paid the money they are due.
Paul Tyler, who worked in various roles including Santa, said employees had become concerned about the company’s finances after a series of incidents.
‘We were supposed to be paid our first wages on December 10 and didn’t get paid until the December 12,’ he said. ‘Even then the money wasn’t forthcoming until we threatened to walk out. At the beginning of December we were already running out of presents for the children and so the grotto manager had to go out and spend £400 of their own money to purchase emergency gifts.’
Paul says he is owed about £2,000.
Jon Morgan, who played Santa between November 24 and December 7, has still not received money that he should have been paid on December 10.
‘Like everyone else, I didn’t get paid on December 10,’ he said. ‘However I was due to take up another position at a different grotto and so was not in a position to threaten to walk out. I am owed £1,900 for that period, none of which has been paid. I have made about 70 attempts to contact the company. On the one occasion someone answered they said it would be sorted – that was a month ago. My Christmas ended up not like I had planned. There were presents I was going to buy that I could no longer purchase.’.
For Andrew Butcher, who worked as a reindeer puppeteer, failure to be paid by the end of the month will result in him going into rent arrears.
Andrew said: ‘It is a complete nightmare. I am owed £1,700 for 141 hours work. Without this money I won’t be able to pay my rent. The company has sent an email saying they are trying to resolve the situation but I am not confident I will be paid. I have tried speaking to the company but get no response. It is really upsetting to be treated with so little respect.’
In addition to the pay dispute, it has also transpired that the company had employed children under 16 who have potentially been working illegal hours.
Lara Kells, 15, was employed as one of Santa’s elves.
‘It is really disappointing. I dedicated all my free weekends into this work and missed out on a lot of time to enjoy myself over Christmas. I worked hard for that money and it is really frustrating not to be paid,’ she said.
During term time and holiday periods 15 and 16-year-olds can work a maximum of two hours on Sundays and 8 hours on Saturdays.
‘I was working 21 hours each weekend – ten and a half hours on both Saturdays and Sundays,’ said Lara.
The News has tried to speak to Tony Jennings, director of Grotto Hire UK Ltd and partner firm Agility Events.
Mr Jennings responded by email which stated: ‘We regret the position that we are currently in as a company. Our team of staff have done an outstanding job to produce and deliver our Christmas experiences. We are very grateful for all of their hard work and dedication!
‘A decline in sales and footfall figures in the retail sector this year has put the company under pressure and created cash flow problems.
‘Our clients have been very supportive in helping us reach a solution, which we are actively trying to do.
‘We are extremely sorry for the situation that we are in. We are doing our utmost to resolve it.’
Gunwharf Quays, where the grotto was based, has said that it is disappointed that people have not been paid, and that customers at the grotto were also not happy with what was on offer.
Yvonne Clay, senior marketing manager at Gunwharf Quays, said: ‘We are hugely disappointed that customers’ expectations were not met, and that staff have reported not being paid by Agility Events. This is not a reflection on how we expect our partners to operate and we are doing everything we can to resolve the individual issues, including taking legal advice.’
The email sent by Mr Jennings to staff indicated he hoped to sanction late payments by January 31. Staff say they fear the worst as Facebook and website pages have been taken down.