Unions must fight for measures to ensure safe working

Unions must fight for measures to ensure safe working

Katrine Williams, Health and Safety rep PCS union

The policies of the Tory government, putting profit before safety, continue to punish working-class communities with unsafe workplaces and a cost of living crisis.

It is vital that the trade union movement mobilises the strength of its six million members behind an alternative programme and demands to tackle the health risks and hardship people face in our communities.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many trade union leaders capitulated to the idea of national unity with the bosses. The last 18 months has seen a rising wave of workers’ struggle for workplace safety, against fire and rehire and for pay rises. It is vital this momentum is taken into this new Covid wave.

The TUC demands for better sick pay are fine, but why should we let bosses off the hook – many of whom have raked in huge profits during the pandemic? Many companies force low-paid workers to stay in work, unable to survive on just statutory sick pay when they should be self-isolating.

Fully paid leave for anyone forced to self-isolate, needing to shield due to health vulnerabilities, or care for children and other family members, is a necessity for Covid safety.

A new, better job retention scheme that includes full pay being paid direct to workers is also needed in sectors where work has dried up because of the effects of the pandemic.

Workers have had to battle tooth and nail for workplace safety measures and to challenge employers who put profits first. It is vital that workers keep fighting collectively, but a bold alternative programme for Covid safety would help inspire resistance in every workplace, including those not yet reached by the trade union movement.

Working from home

All work that can be done from home needs to be fully supported to limit the spread of Covid and keep workers safe. This may need improvements to IT and other equipment, but trade unions must fight for this to be prioritised by bosses.

We also need to ensure that full support is delivered to workers suffering the toll and isolation of working from home. 40% of the UK workforce were working from home in early 2021, 40% of these said their mental health had worsened since working from home.

Employers have typically focused more on enhanced monitoring of their workforce, piling on the pressure, and increasing workloads rather than supporting workers.

Workers juggling working from home with childcare and other tasks should not be penalised by punitive performance management monitoring. Clear demarcation of when workers are working and not working needs to be fought for, as does a shortening of the working week without loss of pay.

During previous periods of lockdown many workers took whatever kit was offered to enable them to work from home, and have been working hunched over a tiny laptop screen ever since.

It is important that trade unions fight for all workers to have a home set up that complies with Display Screen Equipment regulations. Employers should stump up for connection costs while we campaign for everyone to have free access to superfast broadband.

Any return to the workplace must only be with the agreement of the trade unions.

Safety in the workplace

There are many jobs where workers do need to be in the workplace providing essential services. Every measure must be fought for to keep these workplaces as safe as possible.

While the penalties against individuals breaching Covid regulations have been harsh, this has been non-existent for employers (and politicians) breaching health and safety regulations putting far more people at risk. While there have been innumerable workplace outbreaks, the Health and Safety Executive has prosecuted just one employer despite doing 316,000 spot Covid-19 checks.

Many employers, excused by the government, continue to ignore the need to ventilate workspaces. The supply of CO2 monitors is pitifully slow, and employers realise that CO2 monitors will provide a clear indication to workers of just how risky many workplaces are.

Action must be taken to either bring in fresh air or remove people from the space. Face coverings should be worn in every indoor workplace to protect the workers, and this includes hospitality and schools.

While demanding full enforcement of safety legislation, trade unions need to build the collective resistance on the ground to best protect workers and our communities. Unions should mobilise widespread mass action to protect safety using workers’ rights under regulation eight of the ‘Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, 1999’ and section 44 of the ‘Employment Rights Act, 1996’.

We saw how effective this was when used as part of mass action by teachers who resisted the unsafe reopening of schools in January 2021. Regulation eight and section 44 can be used to raise workers’ confidence in taking action collectively, if necessary, as the basis for industrial action to keep them safe.

Unions must fight for

  • Full pay for all those forced to self-isolate, shield from the virus or care for children or other vulnerable people – with no detriment from attendance management procedures
  • Reintroduce an improved job retention scheme, but on 100% pay paid directly to workers
  • For living benefits – fully resource DWP to provide full services to the public to pay on time
  • End bosses’ excessive monitoring, for a 32-hour working week without loss of pay
  • Free access to superfast broadband and necessary IT equipment for homeworking and education
  • End profiteering and shortages – nationalise the PPE, Covid-testing and CO2 monitor production companies
  • No return to workplaces until safe, with agreement from trade unions, exemptions only for the small numbers who are at more risk at home