Socialist Worker

Fear and uncertainty for workers who can’t stay home in ghost town Britain

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2697

The busy old days are gone in Vauxhall, south London

The busy old days are gone in Vauxhall, south London (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Parts of Britain look increasingly like a ghost town after the government advised workers to work from home where possible.

As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus grow every day, more and more people are wary about being out. But for some, staying indoors isn’t an option.

“In our job, we can’t work from home,”  London bus driver Des told Socialist Worker. But he said many workers are fearful for their health.

“Before the virus, we weren’t that cautious about taking over from another driver,” he said. “But now a lot of drivers are wiping their steering wheels and washing their hands more.”

James, another driver, said he was “definitely worried” about coming into contact with so many people every day. “Our families are worried too,” he told Socialist Worker. “My wife gave me wipes to bring to work.”

Drivers said bosses have provided hand sanitiser, but some felt they could do more to protect workers. “They just tell us to wash our hands more,” said Lee. “They don’t give us masks or anything—they don’t have the time to worry about us.”

Lee said the buses are getting quieter as more people work from home or self-isolate. “It will get a lot quieter when the schools close,” he added.

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Transport for London has announced that from Monday, buses will operate a Saturday service. But drivers aren’t sure what this could mean for them in terms of hours or pay. “Normally Saturdays are treated as unsocial hours,” said Des. 

And James said there are five grades of drivers, with apprentices who have been drivers for less than a year on “very low wages”. “We’re paid on Fridays and a lot of us live hand to mouth,” he said.

“It is worrying when you pass a supermarket and you see things are scarce. You do worry about how you are going to buy food.”

In a nearby Morrisons, shelves are empty and extra staff have been drafted in to deal with the increased demand. Mike, on the self-service tills, said he was supposed to be on holiday this week but had been “called in because it’s so hectic”.

“There were 100 people queuing when we opened this morning,” he told Socialist Worker. “We get new deliveries every night so all the shelves are full when we open. But it’s like a plague of locusts goes through the shop every day.

Warnings 

Uncertainty about how the government will respond to the crisis—and warnings that people could have to stay indoors for two weeks—have fuelled the panic. But the workers trying to ensure people have enough aren’t being looked after properly by the bosses.

“They don’t give us anything,” said Mike. “They don’t even offer to give us hand gel or gloves. All the hand sanitiser we have is brought in by staff themselves.

“We have asked for these things but they just turn a deaf ear. They don’t want to know. I think they should at least offer to give us things like gloves and masks.”

Elsewhere people are worried about how they will get by if more shops and cafes close. Martim, who runs a Portuguese cafe in south London, said the situation is “very scary”.

“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” he told Socialist Worker. “If everyone is quarantined and we are told to close, then of course we will. But this is my bread and butter. This is where I get money from to pay for everything. 

“My business landlord won’t tolerate me not paying rent on the shop.”

Already he has cut opening times. And measures to deal with the virus across Europe mean his stocks are running low. “We sell mainly things from Portugal but Spain and Portugal have done a deal to close their borders,” Martim said.

“We are running low on things. Business is completely dead. My concern is that we don’t know how long this will go on for. It’s a situation I’ve never been through before.”

All names have been changed

 


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