Right across the UK, people have adapted quickly to the new lockdown regulations. They impose tough constraints on our living routines, work patterns and community activities, but most of us respect the need for these restrictions to stop the rapid transmission of coronavirus throughout our population.
The Scottish government has issued advice that businesses whose activity is not “essential or material to the effort against the virus or to the wellbeing of society”, and which cannot “practise safe social distancing and comply with ALL other standard health and safety requirements” should cease activity.
During a TV interview a few days ago, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stressed that if employers cannot “ensure that there are safe social distancing practices in place”, then the “advice is, you shouldn’t be continuing to operate at this time”.
But it is clearly not working. Since the start of the lockdown, day after day, Scottish Labour has received numerous reports of companies forcing workers to continue to travel to work and then, when they get there, making them work in close proximity. It’s clear that while most responsible citizens recognise the need to put safety first, some bosses are still prepared to recklessly risk public health for the sake of profits.
Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament Neil Findlay highlighted that the global drinks firm Bacardi is still requiring workers to report on site across Scotland. Even if the lockdown is increasing our collective alcohol consumption, it’s a bit of a stretch to consider rum production an essential service.
And it is far from the only example in the Scottish drinks industry. Unions have called for Scotland’s whisky industry to suspend production, but many distilleries are still in action – even though their products will not be ready for the off-license shelves for many years.
Gates Power Transmission – a factory in Dumfries that makes drive belts for cars, many of which have suspended production – reportedly left staff in tears when bosses insisted the site would remain operational throughout the pandemic. And companies like the Premier Housewares factory in Glasgow has told workers that if they stay at home they will not get sick pay.
If my water supply stops, there is a power cut, or I urgently need to contact NHS 24, I am of course reliant on workers based in call centres to be at work to give me advice. But there are too many call centres across Scotland forcing workers in, without proper safeguards, not to offer essential advice but to meet sales performance targets. They need to close and where possible allow staff to work from home.
Unite Scotland has reported that the Scottish government has now told building sites to shut down, but questions remain over why work was allowed to continue for so many days after the lockdown began.
As we go into a new week, it’s time for ministers to make clear that companies producing or selling non-essential goods and services must immediately end any requirement for workers to be on site. We now need the Scottish government to work with the Health and Safety Executive on a plan to force companies that are putting profits before safety to immediately stop.
Workers also need a cast-iron guarantee, right now, that they will not lose their jobs or their pay if they refuse to work in unsafe conditions and endanger the public at large. As I made clear in the Scottish Parliament before the lockdown began, workers will not be able to self-isolate if they cannot afford to do so. The support packages announced by both the UK and the Scottish governments are welcome, but there is still far too much confusion over which businesses should remain open, what support businesses and workers will receive, and when they will receive it.
Once we are sure that only essential workplaces are still open, we stand a much better chance of saving lives. It is morally irresponsible for employers to bend let alone break the rules. And only when the Scottish government makes clear that flouting guidance will have consequences can we be sure that we are all doing all we can to tackle COVID-19.