How Unite the Union has fought to protect workers from Covid-19

This year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day comes amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Trade unions have always put the safety and welfare of their members first, but in recent weeks that commitment has been tested to its limit. Our challenge has been to meet the requirements and needs of the 20 industrial sectors Unite represents, each with their own priorities as well as measures that span several sectors.

In recent weeks, unions have been instrumental in reducing the spread of coronavirus by ensuring workers are protected. Infection rates and deaths would have been far higher without us. Covid-19 is an invisible foe, and workers can potentially succumb to the infection at any time and in any place, not simply at work, which means assessing additional risks presented by coronavirus is a complicated task. Unite has lost many members to this terrible disease, every one of which is an individual tragedy.

Occupational health and safety risk assessments have a hierarchy and Covid-19 is no exception. Social distancing is at the top of the hierarchy, with all other measures being mitigation. There are job roles, such as clinical care, where mitigation is essential hence the emphasis Unite has put on the availability of good quality personal protective equipment.

A huge amount of focus has been given to our key workers who are undertaking vital roles and must be protected from Covid-19. It is heart-breaking that over 20 London bus workers have died due to coronavirus, with many more left fighting for their lives. The number of bus worker deaths outside the capital is also rising.

Following classic health and safety rules Unite’s priority has been to remove the risks faced by bus workers wherever possible. This has involved enhanced cleaning regimes, sealing the screen around the driver, making seating around the driver out of bounds and ensuring that Unite safety reps are stood down from driving to ensure that these measures are enforced and that social distancing is maintained at garages and depots at all times.

Unite is also seeking action to close front doors on buses. Following pressure from our union last week, Transport for London closed the front door on all buses, as rear and middle door entry further protects bus drivers. Similar action is being taken outside of London, but here often the biggest challenge remains the collection of money.

This is particularly concerning where there is a lack of regular access to hand-washing facilities. It has been proven that the virus can be easily transmitted when touching money, so Unite has been pressurising bus operators to introduce measures to remove direct access to cash. A major national risk assessment is now being carried out.

If the risk of contamination cannot be removed, it is is essential that adequate PPE is provided to protect our members. The failure to provide the correct PPE across all sectors but especially in the NHS and the care sector is nothing short of a national scandal. The government has been guilty of mixed messages, false hope and lacking a strategic plan. It is no coincidence given the government’s failures on PPE that the feedback we have received from our frontline members is hair-raising.

Unite paramedic members, who are working round the clock report that “huge numbers of colleagues are off sick, and there are massive differences between the levels of PPE each trust is supplying”. The danger faced by our paramedics was brought painfully home when one of Unite’s paramedics in Wales succumbed to Covid-19 last week.

The plight of members in the care sector is even worse. From the start of the lockdown, concerned workers were contacting Unite, describing how PPE was not available and often managers were indifferent to their concerns. It is impossible to escape the belief that the initial lack of PPE and consequently adequate safety measures is linked to the rapid spread of the virus in care homes, which has killed care workers as well as their elderly and vulnerable residents.

In care homes, where there is often no union organisation, Unite’s advice has been clear. Demand risk assessments are completed and followed – and if workers believe their health is being directly endangered, they have a right to withdraw their labour.

The failure to supply and distribute PPE was why Unite called on the government to appoint a minister responsible for co-ordinating provision. It belatedly agreed, and appointed Lord Deighton, who will hopefully finally ensure that sufficient PPE is available and provided to those who need it.

Ensuring that workers are able to socially distance at work has presented another significant challenge that covers a huge number of workplaces. The response from employers has varied. In refuse collection, councils that directly employ their bin workers have been generally more prepared to work with Unite to ensure that social distancing occurs. But many private sector outsourced operators have been far more reluctant to introduce such policies, with Unite having to threaten action to defend the health of our members.

In other sectors, such as construction, food processing and retail, and in aviation on repatriation flights, Unite continues to confront huge challenges. With the repatriation flights, staff are being required to assist clearly ill passengers return to the UK, physical distancing is not taking place, and the quality and availability of PPE remains at best variable.

The aim of keeping our construction members safe has been made far more difficult by changes to government-sponsored guidance, which now allows workers to be face-to-face for 15 minutes if no other option is available. This is downright dangerous. Unite has been clear that if social distancing cannot be ensured for construction workers from the moment they leave home until they return, sites should be closed.

In construction, the government and many employers are placing the economy over health. With over half of the industry self-employed, and those workers receiving no financial support until late June, workers are being effectively starved back to work.

Social distancing has been a real problem in food processing and retail, where our members – many on the minimum wage – became key workers overnight. Employers have adapted to deal with this issue, either through agreement with the union or because union members organising together have forced them to do so. Where they have been slow or reluctant to act, they have been exposed and forced to change their practices.

Social distancing has also been a major issue for our members who work in call centres. Some are now working from home, but for those still required to go into the workplace, Unite has been contesting a serious lack of distancing, as well as compulsory hot-desking and the hygiene issues that this creates.

It isn’t just on social distancing that Unite has had to protect the wellbeing of workers. When the pandemic began, the maximum driving hours of HGV drivers were relaxed to help meet the demand for food and medicines. This was a measure that Unite and a number of employers did not believe was necessary, and we have been ensuring the safety of these workers is not compromised.

At the same time, many companies began illegally refusing HGV drivers access to toilets and welfare facilities, when making deliveries. Which given the nature of COVID-19 is potentially lethal. Unite has been working with the government and the Health and Safety Executive, to ensure that such problems are resolved, while naming and shaming companies that deny welfare provisions.

When the pandemic ends, we cannot simply return to business as normal. Across all sectors, Unite is helping workers struggling with anxiety and mental health issues. These problems won’t disappear overnight when workers return to work and have to contend with the “new normal” – in fact, they are likely to increase.

This crisis has shows that the UK’s inspection and enforcement regime is threadbare and weak. It has been ineffective during the pandemic, with no evidence of any decisive interventions. Considering this is the biggest public health emergency in over a century, that is a damning indictment. We must demand that the regulators are given the powers, funding and confidence to tackle the employers who risk the health and safety of workers in the pursuit of profits.

For the first time in a decade, the government has given the union movement houseroom during this pandemic. Ministers have listened to what we have had to say and often acted on our concerns. Moving forward, while there will be clear differences, the government needs to recognise that unions play and will continue to play a vital role in ensuring safety, security and social justice for workers.

Workplaces that have been closed, equipment that has been unused, vehicles and buildings will need to be checked, cleaned and made safe. New practices to protect workers, their families and communities will have to be introduced. It is irrefutable that as members continue to face the dreadful challenges of this pandemic the slogan of IWMD – “remember the dead but fight like hell for the living” – has never been more important.

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