Socialist Worker

Reckless bosses put people at risk

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2697

Majestic wine - an essential service?

Majestic wine - an essential service? (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)


Bosses are putting workers at risk as firms try to keep operating during the coronavirus crisis.

Bill works for Majestic Wine in London, which told staff on Monday it would keep sending deliveries to customers. “They've said we are 'going dark' and not having customers in the shops,” Bill told Socialist Worker.

“But we're still using the same phones and travelling in. We’re much more likely to get it off each other than customers

“Someone has been off really ill with symptoms at my shop. It's not safe. Someone will die and it will be as a result of this decision to keep stores open.”

Steve is another Majestic worker. “There’s a lot of anger among staff,” he told Socialist Worker. “They've said they don't qualify for the government deal to pay 80 percent of wages. So there's always this threat that our wages are going away.”

Steve was glad that bosses had agreed that shops wouldn't be open to customers. But he added, “They're telling us if we don't feel safe we don't have to come to work, but we can take voluntary unpaid leave.

“People can't afford to do that. What about colleagues with children?”

In East Kilbride, Sarah described her fears for her partner who is being pushed to continue working for a small manufacturing and engineering firm. “The boss told them, ‘This place is staying open as normal—nobody's shutting us down,’” Sarah told Socialist Worker.

“If he doesn't go in, he won't get paid.

“They have one machine making medicine cups for the NHS, so they say it's essential to stay open. But the boss has got them doing all the other work. My partner has worked there for 22 years and they're all too frightened to say anything.”

And she said conditions in the workplace mean that the virus could spread.

“Now they've plopped down a couple of bottles of hand sanitiser and people can use the roll down towels in the toilet to wash,” said Sarah. “But they don't know the last time that was cleaned.

“And people jump from machine to machine to do the work. There's no social distancing.”

Emerged 

Pictures emerged on social media on Monday showing large groups of construction workers crowding into canteens.

Yet after Johnson’s announcement Tory minister tweeted, “If you are working on site, you can continue to do so.”

Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group said, “Official government advice is for building sites to stay open despite the lockdown. Is this due to lobbying by major construction firms or because the government doesn’t want to pay loss of earnings for a million ‘self-employed’ builders?

“Either way, if sites stay open during the pandemic, building workers and their family members will die.”

Pete Shaw is on the Unite union electrical combine committee. He told Socialist Worker, “Many construction workers, especially in London, are going to work under duress.

“Getting to work is horrendous. They're piling onto trains because the number of trains has been knocked down. The rules for keeping people separate just aren't possible in many canteens.”

Like many workers, Sarah is now left worrying about how she will make ends meet. “I work for a restaurant chain so I've been told I'll get 80 percent of my wages covered by the government,” she said.

“It's good but if I drop to 80 percent and my partner loses his wages, what then? And I've got my son to worry about—I'm probably going to have to try and help him cover his rent.”

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But while ordinary people struggle, bosses are focused on maintaining big profits. “Majestic has been making an absolute fortune,” said Bill. “The last couple of weeks has been like Christmas. So of course they want to stay open.”

And Pete said, “We've heard of cases where employers are pleading for workers to go in. They want the government to declare that construction workers shouldn't be working, so they can lay them off and won't be held to their penalty clauses.

“It's all about making sure it doesn't cost them any money. Meanwhile if workers get laid off they won't get paid. And because they're classed as self-employed, they might not be able to claim benefits.”

Whether it comes from bosses or governments, the money is there to support workers.

Steve said, “Majestic has just been bought up by a massive US private equity firm. Why can't they secure our wages for three months?”

He added, “I think we should shut up shop. I have no reason to be here except to pay bills. I want it to be clearer what my company is going to do. I want to know that my wages are secure and that workers with kids will be looked after.”

Sarah said, “I think they should send every adult in the country a set amount of money. And they need to put a freeze on private landlord rents for three months.”

Pete said activists are arguing that workers have a right to be kept safe at work under Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act. “In some instances arguing this has worked,” he said. “In some canteens, they have taken out seats so people can't sit too close together.”

Pressure from below and workers’ action can force changes. Sports Direct performed a hasty U-turn after fury at its initial pledge to keep shops open after Johnson’s announcement.

BAE Systems tried to stay open following a case of coronavirus. The firm said it wanted to “minimise any impact to our operations”. But it shut down after pressure from workers.

Action can beat bosses who put profits before people's lives.

Some names have been changed. Have you been affected by coronavirus at work? Get in touch - email reports@socialistworker.co.uk

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