by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser
· Boris Johnson’s TV broadcast to ‘the nation’ and subsequent twists, turns and publication of documents on ‘rebuilding the economy’ has dragged down the Tory government Covid-19 (C-19) ‘strategy’ from wilful neglect of workers to life-threatening chaos.
His core message was ‘get back to work’, unless you can work from home.
‘Get back to work’ before any proper C-19 safety measures are put in place and agreed by workers’ trade union representatives, to resurrect production and sales for profit.
All the more a renewed declaration of class war when the government’s own Office for National Statistics this week reports C-19 deaths are particularly, heavily, concentrated amongst the lowest-paid workers, as opposed to the well-to-do.
C-19 deaths so far amongst security guards, taxi-drivers, chefs, bus drivers and retail staff have been twice, thrice and four times the rate of deaths across the average population.
‘Get back to work’ despite an official, underestimated death toll of nearly 40,000. And continued abject failure to provide adequate PPE to care workers, NHS staff, many in retail and others thrown into the jaws of disease and death—let alone the mass testing, contact tracing and isolation that hordes of scientific experts emphasise is a prerequisite to ‘reopening the economy’.
One such professor, of Epidemiology and Medicine, Oxford University’s David Hunter, warned: “Test, trace, isolate is a precondition for easing the lockdown. Some will see an ongoing commitment to herd immunity behind the lack of public health actions in Johnson’s speech.
“If we take the PM’s advice and return to work in large numbers now—without the ability to test, trace and isolate—then virus spread will increase, there will be super-spreader events and local or regional lockdowns will have to be reconsidered.”
‘Get back to work’ to make profits!
Whilst retaining a formal ban on large outdoor social gatherings in England, the same Tories have incited and demanded even larger gatherings—mostly indoors—by ordering millions of workers in non-essential sectors to get back to work, immediately. Clearly, workers’ lives are much more dispensable than boardroom profits.
The time for trade unions to organise collective protection of workers, including where necessary by organising a collective refusal to work in unsafe workplaces, has never been more urgent.
And it would be shameful if the tops of the TUC were to concede any grounds on the necessary safety measures in a vain collaboration with employers and the Tory government “in the national interest”.
There is no such thing as one national interest; this whole crisis reveals a clash of interests between working-class lives and public health versus the pursuit of private profit.
Tory Cabinet splits
As we’ve warned for weeks, the Tory Cabinet is split, with the hawks advocating an immediate return to work, led by Chancellor Rishni Sunak, and the so-called doves cautioning a slightly slower pace, given the risk of a new explosion of infection and death.
They are buffeted by conflicting forces; organised workers and boardroom bosses. BoJo, previously perceived to be on the more cautious Cabinet wing, has capitulated to those demanding a sudden, premature, dangerous return to production and sales for profit, egged on by the business lobby.
Dropping the slogan Stay Home, the Tories’ new slogan of Stay Alert is more than just dangerously vague—opening the door to bosses dragging millions of workers back to work regardless of safety standards, and hordes of cooped-up, frustrated people pouring onto trains, buses, streets, parks and beaches—it is also a cynical denial of responsibility by the government, passing the blame onto individual citizens for any escalation of deaths.
But amidst all the bumbling, one stark, central message from Johnson leapt out, with cavalier indifference to workers’ lives: those who cannot work from home should be “actively encouraged to go back to work”, whilst “avoiding public transport where possible.”
He singled out construction and manufacturing workers. The government’s subsequently published 50-page document added others: workers in logistics, food manufacturing, distribution and science labs.
Safety on the sites?
The Tories want to throw people back onto building sites where workers across the UK have described how it’s almost universally impossible to work with social distancing, given the nature of the jobs, and where 200 have already died of C-19.
A survey last week by Construction News, on sites working throughout the so-called lockdown, found one in every five worker had no proper PPE, the same proportion believed their employer would not even report a C-19 incident to the Health and Safety Executive, and the same HSE has already suspended all site visits for routine checks in March! Building workers who visit people’s homes are even more at risk of infection.
Johnson demanded such workers should return a mere 12 hours after his Sunday-night broadcast, on Monday morning. His deputy, Dominic Raab, rowed back from that next morning, with the still appallingly-rushed starting date of Wednesday 13 May.
The angry backlash subsequently drove Johnson back to saying workers should “contact their employers to see if they should resume work”. Confused? Scared of the sack?
Not content with the carrot, the Tories spent weeks waving and threatening to use the stick, warning they may savagely cut back on the government wage subsidy under the Job Retention Scheme, from 80 per cent to 60 per cent of wages. This threat was undoubtedly designed to stampede sections of workers back, prematurely, for fear of losing their jobs.
As it turned out, two forces converged on the Tories, curbing their excesses.
Furlough scheme extended
Sections of big business—not averse to being bailed out by the taxpayer for a while longer!—expressed panic at the prospect of the subsidy being reduced and thereby undermining their future productive capacity.
This was expressed by former Bank of England governor, Lord Mervyn King, who advocated retention of the 80 per cent subsidy to at least late 2020:
“If the government decides for good reason to shut down the economy it has an obligation to support business so that it doesn’t disappear, because then it would not have the productive capacity to recover economic growth.
“It makes no sense to regard this scheme as the real cost of the Covid crisis, economically. These are transfers from taxpayers in general to businesses. It will lead to increased national debt, but we can recover that over the longer term, particularly given the low level of interest rates.”
Alongside naked self-interest from sections of big business, the mounting anger of workers and increased prominence of trade unions—on a scale not seen on our TV screens for many years—drove Rishi Sunak and the Tories back on this threat, at least for now.
They’ve instead announced extension of the furlough scheme until October, with the 80 per cent guarantee extended to the end of July, with ‘more flexible’ arrangements thereafter, including provision for part-time work being supplemented by Job Retention Scheme (JRS) payments. They’ve also talked of asking employers to pay a greater proportion.
Beware of pay cuts: full funding for Scotland
Many of the 6.3 million workers currently on the furlough scheme will breathe a huge sigh of relief at not facing immediate 45-day notices of redundancy, due to happen on 18 May if the JRS had halted on 30 June.
But the pressure of the organised trade union movement will need to be sustained, to stop some of the vagueness in the government’s announcements becoming loopholes for employers (or government) to slash wages.
And as the STUC has rightly warned, we will need to make sure the finances are made available to sustain the furlough scheme, without any further pay cuts, beyond July in Scotland, if the pace of restarting work is slower here, as dictated by health protection.
Under the pressure of angry opposition to their oft-threatened cuts to furlough pay, the Tories have for now switched to the tactic of enlisting the help of employers to drag workers off the government-funded scheme into full or part-time work, but with no proper guarantees of workplace or travel safety in advance.
Which privileged planet are Tories on?
The Tories telling workers to “avoid public transport where possible”, by driving to work, “or better still, walking or cycling”, illustrates that they live on a privileged planet apart from millions of workers.
Long gone are the days when workers piled out of the teeming tenements or cobbled streets into shipyards, factories or coal mines located round the corner from where they lived.
Big businesses have rationalised and centralised, further from where workers live, and distant retail parks harvest hordes of workers from afar. Plus, by definition, car ownership is far lower amongst the lowest paid.
Their ruthless attempts to ‘ramp up’ public transport services rides roughshod over the deep concerns of bus, underground and rail workers and their unions. And passengers’ fears.
Earlier, transport bosses collided with unions in their unilateral plans to restore full train and London Underground services by 18 May, but now Johnson’s ‘plan’ to ease lockdown has hastened that reckless drive even more.
London workers piled onto the Underground in their thousands the morning after his TV demand to ‘get back to work’.
That’s why the RMT union has denounced Johnson’s announcements and advised members to refuse to work in situations where they feel the safety of staff or customers is endangered, with the full backing of their union.
Similar warnings have been issued by the STUC and TUC, although much more muted in the latter’s statements.
Milk-and-water Covid safety guidelines
In the rush to revive profiteering on behalf of the class they represent, Johnson’s government had earlier drafted guidelines on a return to work and only gave the unions 12 hours to comment.
The anger and refusal to endorse that this triggered from normally compliant TUC leaders, under pressure from angry and scared members, has forced at least some positive improvements in the finalised guidelines, published a week later.
The original documents spoke of ‘asking employers to consider’ measures such as social distancing between workers and hand-washing that should ‘happen where possible’. Not one hint of anything being legally binding requirements on employers.
In shocking contradiction of the two-metre rule we’ve all become so familiar with, the original guidelines suggested that where it is not possible to keep workers two metres apart “Perhaps”, to quote Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary, “you could be closer than two metres, but not for long.”
The final version isn’t much better. It repeats the insidious clause ‘where possible’, and advocates that “colleagues look away from each other” or work “side by side”, as means of reducing infection!
That’s already become a real and dangerous issue in at least one retail giant, with instructions to carry out two-person lifts of heavy items whilst each worker looks back over his/her shoulder!
With callous indifference towards workers’ lives, the initial government documents did not even mention PPE. Indeed, they offered guidance “to ensure staff can be made to feel sufficiently reassured of safe working practises without the provision of PPE.” Again, the final version actively discourages sectors like retail from use of PPE.
Travel a different road in Scotland
In Scotland, the workers’ movement has an opportunity to ensure a much safer outcome. To their credit, the Scottish Government refused to follow the reckless road of Johnson’s government, sticking to the central slogan Stay at Home, stating that they do not yet expect workers to return to non-essential jobs.
They are in tripartite discussions with employers and unions to draft plans for when and how to restart eight different sectors of the economy.
The STUC has rightly laid out red lines, including advanced systems in place for testing and tracing, full supplies of PPE, and the means of enforcement for each sector, as agreed by unions.
Unlike the UK government, the unions should insist that Holyrood establishes the legislative machinery and enforcement agencies to ensure employers put the safety of their workers before profit.
In the Tory government’s guidelines, they’ve only partially conceded to the union demand that Risk Assessments should not only be carried out with the involvement of the unions, but also published—by applying this only to workplaces with over 50 workers.
What about the vast numbers who work in places with fewer than fifty? Are they just to be thrown to the tender mercies of the employers? These are frequently the most vulnerable and disorganised workers, most in need of union and legislative protection.
Union-led risk assessments everywhere
The unions in Scotland need to insist that all workplaces, regardless of size, be included in Risk Assessments which are published before a return to work—and indeed, in workplaces that have remained open throughout the pandemic. The carnage in the care homes grotesquely highlights the need for that.
Furthermore, years of austerity by successive governments has meant decimation of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) staffing levels, meaning there are far too few safety inspectors for routine workplace visits in normal times, let alone to deal with this deadly crisis.
That serves to reinforce the need to deploy the vast army of union health and safety reps to be fully involved in Risk Assessments in every workplace. These are workers with practical workplace knowledge, combined with union training on safety measures, who in reality should have day-to-day control of workplace safety.
The Scottish Government should publicly endorse and facilitate their full involvement, including in roving roles in workplaces not yet unionised.
The right to refuse unsafe work
Another profoundly different approach that socialists like the SSP would advocate is that the Scottish Government should use their daily briefings and public information campaigns to highlight the right to join a union, the positive advantages of union recognition, and the already existing legal rights of workers to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, without victimisation or loss of earnings.
That is the statutory right of every worker under the 1996 Employment Rights Act (Regulations 44 and 100). That existing legal right cannot be implemented by isolated individual workers—but should be applied with determination through the collective organisation of the trade union movement.
When asked about whether workers should have this legal right, on Breakfast TV, UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer declined to use his legal knowledge as a former QC, and instead said “I’d rather not get into that situation.”
Imagine if, by contrast, the Scottish Government had slots at their Coronavirus briefings for union leaders and workplace activists to advocate union rights, union membership, and their plans for safety before profit!
Dancing with death
No worker wants to remain stuck at home indefinitely, particularly when it means pay cuts of 10 per cent or 20 per cent.
But when the daily death toll is still heart-breaking, and when employers in care homes, hospitals and bus services are amongst those who cannot organise the protection of workers from the deadly virus, this incitement to reopening of the economy is not only premature, but a dance with death.
The unions, including the TUC and STUC, need to assist every union rep and every member to resist a premature return to unsafe workplaces.
Workers’ lives and public health must come before the private profits of big business—who in any case are grabbing state handouts to subsidise their profits.
Fighting for safety measures
Basic preparatory measures should include deep cleans of workplaces; stringent plans and regulations about increased cleaning routines; strict adherence to social distancing between workers; shields; face masks and visors; proper hygiene, cleaning and washing facilities.
They should all be legally binding rather than an optional extra, to be ‘considered where possible’ by employers.
Transport unions should be fully involved in comprehensive plans to make public transport safe. Workers in vulnerable health categories, or with childcare or care duties, should be offered the continued protection of the Job Retention Scheme—on full pay, not 80 per cent.
Safety at work also requires mass testing, contact tracing, and proper isolation. With an adequate army of staff trained to conduct this mass exercise, without which lockdown on its own is no solution.
Workers’ control of safety
This whole grotesque attempt to put the health of big business balance-sheets ahead of the health or lives of workers highlights the urgent need to strengthen trade unions, and demand workers’ control over health and safety in the workplace, through elected union shop stewards and health and safety reps.
If workplaces are not demonstrably safe in the eyes of the appropriate unions, national unions need to give a lead to the membership and refuse to return to work until they are safe.
Put workers’ lives first and last. Put people before profit.
Stay alert – to Tories endangering workers’ lives!
Control the virus – of profiteering!