Socialist Worker

No hand sanitiser, no social distancing, no protection – workers speak out

by Socialist Worker journalists
Issue No. 2698

Tube workers fear that working conditions could put their health at risk

London's Tube remains open - but are workers being kept safe? (Pic: Mike_fleming/Flickr)


Tube workers in London are furious at being asked to risk their health by working in unsafe conditions as the coronavirus crisis grows.

Paddy, an RMT union rep in south London, told Socialist Worker, “People are trying to distance themselves from customers, but that’s easier said than done.

“We only got given rubber gloves at the end of last week. I think now every worker has a hand gel—but that only happened in the last few days.”

The Tories have criticised Transport for London for running a reduced service on London Underground. Tory health minister Matt Hancock said, “Transport for London should have the Tube running in full, so that people travelling are spaced out.”

Yet up to a third of Transport for London workers are self-isolating or struck down with coronavirus. And passenger levels are down by about 88 percent. 

Running a full service without enough fully-trained staff puts both passengers and workers at further risk.

The real problem is the bullying bosses who continue to call people into workplaces and force them onto busy trains and buses. In some cases, workers risk the sack if they don’t turn up.

“The government says, ‘Don’t travel to work,’ but if you survive on that work, it’s essential,” said Paddy.

“People are travelling to get to work, not for a day out. The answer lies in making a payment to all unemployed and self-employed people.”

Paddy said transport workers are demanding that ticket machines are shut and gates opened, to reduce contact between workers and passengers.

“The government is not doing enough to keep transport workers safe,” he said. And he added that workers could strike if workers feel forced to breach the NHS self-isolation advice.

“A walkout is possible if a red line is crossed, and workers believe that their health is in danger,” he said.

Royal Mail workers are also resisting unsafe conditions. Gary Smith works at the South Midlands Mail Centre, a major Royal Mail sorting office and distribution hub.

He told Socialist Worker that some workers from surrounding towns such as Coventry usually come into work on a minibus. But now some have refused to come into work because there’s not enough space on the bus to keep everyone a safe distance apart.

“At the start Royal Mail were happy to come in on the minibus, but the union stepped in and said no,” said Gary. “People didn’t feel safe and decided to stay at home. We can’t use public transport because of the safe distance. So we’re trapped at home waiting.”

Garry added that conditions in the mail centre were also unsafe. “There’s not enough personal protective equipment such as hand sanitiser,” he said. “And some of the sorting machines require three people to operate standing next to each other.”

He added that changes to make working safe—coupled with a reduced workforce as more people stay at home—would cause problems for how work is organised.

But so far bosses haven’t made the right changes.

“They won’t be able to run machines with two metres spacing,” he said. “Those machines will need to be turned off for safety reasons.

“They’ve told people who can’t travel in that they should go to their nearest Royal Mail office and find like-for-like work. But if you’re in processing, you can’t just necessarily go on deliveries.

“Royal Mail bosses are putting people’s lives at risk because they want them to come in. It smacks of them carrying on regardless.”

There is also growing anger among distribution workers. Workers for delivery giant Amazon continued to work in crowded warehouses this week, despite social distancing advice.

The GMB union described workers as “petrified” about working in the current conditions. Workers have said they have no hand sanitiser or reusable gloves.

GMB officer Mick Rix said, “Amazon is blatantly disregarding the two metre social distancing rules. There are no masks, no sanitiser and with the vast amount of people working, there’s no way of keeping them from getting ill.”

Amazon owner Jeff Bezos is the richest man on the planet with a fortune of over £97 billion. Yet he is touting an “Amazon relief fund” for working class people to donate to support Amazon staff.

Paddy is a pseudonym

‘Bosses are finding loopholes to make us keep coming to work’

Jeremy is a call centre worker at a logistics company that delivers luxury furniture for Marks and Spencer and high end brands.

The government has said that businesses deemed “non-essential” should close.

But Jeremy told Socialist Worker that bosses are trying to “find loopholes to flout the instructions” and “putting workers’ health at risk”.

“Management emailed all staff stating that we are all key workers as defined by the government and we are to continue to work as normal,” he said.

“We’re not delivering PPE or medical supplies to hospitals, we're delivering expensive furniture to quite well off people.

“We are not an essential service—I had one doctor on the phone livid that we were continuing to deliver furniture.”

Delivery drivers at the firm have been told not to go into people’s homes. In the company call centre workers have been told to “keep apart” and wash their hands, and the office has been partly rearranged.

But Jeremy said workers still aren’t happy at having to come in.

“Someone queried it with an office superior,” he said. “The response was, ‘This is our interpretation of what Boris Johnson said and we can stay open’.

As well as putting workers’ health at risk, bosses haven’t wasted an opportunity to squeeze more out of staff.

Management texted workers on Monday night to say they did not have to come in. “But then on Tuesday morning management said we have to come in,” Jeremy explained. “Because we were in half an hour late, we weren’t entitled to a lunch break.

“They said we had to work eight hours to get lunch off and would only have a 15 minute tea break.”

Meanwhile, Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group—which includes high street brands such as Top shop—is keeping its online business open.

The coronavirus crisis hasn’t stopped his profiteering at workers’ expense.

Taj used to work at one of Arcadia’s warehouses in Solihull, near Birmingham, until he was sacked on Friday 13 March.

“They are trying to consolidate everything in Rugby where they can fit in all of the brands,” he told Socialist Worker.

Taj now worries about finding work or accessing support.

“It’s very hard to find work anyway and coronavirus has only made this a lot worse,” he said. “I signed up with an agency and looked into working at the Tesco distribution centre in Litchfield.

“It’s minimum wage and a 30-mile journey each way—it’s not worth it if I’m spending £50 or £60 a week on petrol.”

Taj is now trying to get support from the Job Centre, but claims are taking a long time to process.

“I’ve got two weeks’ pay for the last month and that's the last of it,” he said.

Bosses haven’t stopped their attacks. Unions must not avoid fighting them in the name of national unity.

Tomáš Tengely-Evans

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