HUNDREDS of jobs could be at immediate risk of going in the hospitality trade in Belfast due to the ongoing impact of flag protests, it has been claimed.
Industry body Pubs of Ulster has warned as many as 300 jobs could go this week.
It said many pubs, restaurants and hotels were "at breaking point" with some recording trade dropping by more than a half in recent weeks.
It said business was down by almost a third on average with one publican reporting a loss of £95,000 before Christmas and £60,000 during January.
Pubs of Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said the industry had reached "crisis point".
"We are not taking a view on the flag issue itself but we have to address the effect on business, particularly in terms of people's livelihoods," he said.
"The nature of our business makes us very dependent on predictable cash flows and the truth is we have been very badly affected for a sustained period of time. We have now reached crisis point and this week jobs have been lost. Looking ahead, we are predicting that 200 to 300 casual and on-call jobs across the city centre will be lost before the end of the week."
"The industry is fighting for survival and we need action now. We are engaging with all the political parties in a bid to find a way forward and will continue to do so until we find a solution."
Traders across the city have reported a massive drop in business over recent weeks with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) last week estimating as much as £15m could have been lost.
Business leaders gathered in the Europa Hotel earlier this week to voice their concerns about the ongoing protests while the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce addressed the Stormont enterprise committee on the issue yesterday morning.
Chamber president Joe Jordan and the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) Glyn Roberts also met with chief constable Matt Baggott in what they described as a "a very useful meeting".
In a joint statement, the men said they appreciated "the difficult job the PSNI have in policing a very difficult situation".
"Both our groups urged the chief con-stable to encourage his officers to ensure Belfast city centre is as accessible as possible to support our struggling retail and hospitality sectors in the city," they said.
"Our organisations will be working together to jointly lobby ministers and political leaders for greater support for members who are experiencing incredibly difficult trading conditions." ■ 'CRISIS': A deserted Belfast city centre at 4pm last Friday. The city's pubs, hotels and restaurants have been reporting unseasonal losses as shoppers and workers who usually throng the streets have been staying away due to the continuing Union flag protests