Mandatory masks in shops law: workers must not pay the price
Ryan Aldred, secretary, Usdaw union Plymouth and District General Branch (personal capacity)
Face masks are mandatory in shops in England from Friday 24 July, following a similar move in Scotland two weeks prior. As has become the norm, government guidance and action is confused, contradictory, late, and fundamentally flawed.
We say workers must not have to cover the cost of this law. Supermarkets are introducing ‘hygiene stations’ on a wide scale. We need a similar approach with masks. If they are to be mandatory, they must be freely available.
Police are unlikely to have the resources or inclination to respond effectively to consumers not wearing masks. In France earlier this month, a bus driver was beaten to death by two passengers who refused to accept the mask rule.
So it’s right that Paddy Lillis, general secretary of shop workers’ union Usdaw, has said that workers mustn’t be left to enforce the new legislation. He has also called for other measures limiting customer numbers, ensuring screens are in place, and that hygiene stations do not lapse once masks are mandatory. But Lillis is wrong to look to the bosses and the Tories to protect workers.
Matt Hancock, Tory health secretary, announced the mask rules on 14 July. This four-month delay following lockdown measures was despite evidence already pointing to masks helping prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Covid-19 deaths among retail workers are 75% higher than average in men, and 60% higher in women, says Hancock. Yet the government unnecessarily delayed implementation, putting shop workers and the public at increased risk. Moreover, it has rejected requiring masks in offices and other indoor areas.
So what’s the rationale? In Hancock’s own words: “There is also evidence that face coverings increase confidence in people to shop.” So this is nothing to do with protecting workers’ safety, and everything to do with tending to bosses’ profit margins.
Local flare-ups and the lockdown in Leicester have also forced the government’s hand. A second national lockdown would be a serious blow to this weak Tory government’s battered prestige, as well as directly harming the bosses’ profits.
Socialist Party members in Usdaw have argued consistently for health and safety measures to be strictly implemented since March, when the scale of the pandemic became clear. We propose that workers organise workplace health and safety committees.
As bosses try to return to ‘business as usual’, the unions must run a coordinated campaign to defend and strengthen health and safety measures – under the control of workers. Where bosses break or bend safety rules, reps should be instilled with the confidence to challenge them and take action, including walkouts under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
Building shop stewards’ committees would help this. This is an opportunity for unions to push for workers ourselves to have greater control in workplaces.
The Tories have had to consult with the unions in developing guidance. They begrudgingly recognise the power that the unions, representing millions of workers, still hold. It is vital that this power be wielded to ensure that workers’ safety is put firmly before bosses’ profits.