Insufficiency of care for British workers’ health in the Covid-19 crisis

health‘Back to work’ stampede – and may the devil take the hindmost?

In a state of panic over the mounting bad news for the British economy, the government is trying to stampede employees back into work, without even the ghost of a plan to explain just how any of the essential measures to protect workplace safety are to be enforced upon employers.

The tragic death of a young mother working at London’s Victoria Station highlights the perils faced by workers whose jobs involve interaction with the public. Belly Mujinga developed Covid-19 after being spat at by a member of the public. This needless death focused attention on the corner-cutting practices engaged in by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). The TSSA (the railway union representing office workers and sales staff) drew attention to GTR’s failure to protect its staff, with bosses ordering employees to work on the crowded concourse and clean down ticket machines without providing the suitable protective gear, and failing to enforce social distancing. The union reported that many people working in Victoria Station are now fearful for their safety. (‘Belly Mujinga – TSSA demands for staff safety’, TSSA website, 14 May 2020)

ONS: low paid most likely to die

Figures issued by the ONS (Office of National Statistics) make it clear that it is those whose jobs necessitate physical proximity to members of the public or to their workmates, jobs which are frequently dismissed as ‘unskilled labour’, who are more likely than others to be killed by the disease. Men in low paid manual jobs are four times more likely to die from the virus than are men in professional jobs. Women working as carers are twice as likely to die of the virus as are their relatively more privileged sisters occupying professional and technical roles. High up in the risk league are jobs like supermarket check-out staff, construction labourers, cleaners, security guards, bus drivers and plant operatives – in other words, all the people without whose toil society would soon grind to a halt (Caelainn Barr and Phillip Inman, ‘Low-paid workers more likely to die from Covid-19 than higher earners’, The Guardian, 11 May 2020).

It is workers like these who, even before the current effort to chivvy everyone back to work kicked in, have routinely been threatened with the sack if they dare to self-isolate in order to shield vulnerable relatives from potential exposure to the disease. Bosses seek to justify this cruel blackmail by referring to Public Health England guidance stating that staff with vulnerable family members can go to work provided they keep two metres apart at home and at work. But if you work somewhere like a care home or a school, or if your family is crammed into a tiny flat at home, then social distancing goes out the window.

Unison cites the case of a care worker who is self-isolating to protect his wife, a nurse, who told the union, “I need to work but need to protect my family first. I have a wife, a six-year-old and a new baby on the way. We live together in a one-bedroom flat. My managers say I don’t qualify for the furlough scheme and as a migrant worker I don’t qualify for help from the state, so I have no income. We don’t even qualify for food parcels for my young son” (Tim Lezard, ‘Frightened workers self-isolating to protect vulnerable loved ones shouldn’t be punished’, Unison website, 7 May 2020).

Back to school?

Also caught up in the ‘back to work’ stampede now are teachers and pupils, with government dictating arbitrary deadlines for a return to school without proper consultation with the unions and justified on the back of some very dubious science, as the teachers’ unions explained in a joint statement: “Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules. 15 children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of 4 and 5-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread. While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society” (‘Education unions’ statement on the safe reopening of schools’, TUC website, 13 May 2020)

But the social risk posed by a premature and badly planned mass return to work, across all sectors weighs lightly for a government which exists to protect the interests, not of society, but of those who sweat profit from the labour of others.

Covid Couriers fight back

Another group of workers placed unnecessarily at risk are the medical couriers charged with the vital task of transporting Covid-19 samples from Covid wards in hospitals to pathology labs. The couriers work for TDL (The Doctors’ Laboratory), a subsidiary of an Australian company called Sonic Healthcare.

When the couriers asked that TDL should observe some basic health and safety guidelines to safeguard their welfare, the company flatly refused. Worse, the company made ten of the couriers redundant – who just ‘happened’ to include all those who had been trying to get something done about health and safety or had their cards marked as whistleblowers.

The couriers’ demands are hardly excessive bearing in mind the hazardous nature of their job: they include such basic requirements as: giving full pay to workers who need to self-isolate because they have pre-existing medical conditions putting them at particular risk if they contract Covid-19; regularly testing medical couriers for Covid-19; providing proper PPE to medical couriers; and implementing social distancing where possible within the company’s loading bay.

When it became clear that, far from agreeing to consider the workers’ demands, TDL just tried to make its critics redundant, the couriers voted to strike on Wednesday 10 June. Solidarity messages have been received from activists in Australia, and the IWGB has filed a trade union victimisation and whistleblower victimisation claim. It has been revealed that senior management frequently referred to union members as ‘troublemakers’ and recruited a ‘Head of Logistics’ specifically to undermine union activity at TDL. Members are also now reporting harassment by managers in relation to the strike, which will be the first by key workers since the pandemic began.

The couriers’ union, the IWGB (Independent Workers of Great Britain) noted that “TDL has more than enough money to cover the costs of extensive safety measures if it wanted to. The company’s profits have steadily increased from £6m in 2008 to over £28m last year, yet couriers who put their health on the line have barely seen a fraction of this money. Instead, the company has paid a total of £75m in dividends to Sonic Healthcare between 2014 and 2018” (‘Covid-19 couriers vote to strike following victimisation by NHS contractor TDL’, IWGB website, 28 May 2020).