Socialist Worker

Shocking evidence to MPs shows how firms are putting lives at risk

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2699

Workers at Lambeth libraries walked out over safety fears

Workers at Lambeth libraries walked out over safety fears (Pic: Guy Smallman)


A House of Commons committee has received shocking messages from terrified workers being forced to work in unsafe conditions as the coronavirus crisis grows.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) Committee appealed for workers to get in touch about how employers are responding to the crisis.

After receiving over 2,000 emails and tweets, it has published some of its submissions.

They show how the government’s failure to instruct many firms to close is putting lives at risk. And Tory pledges to protect wages go nowhere near far enough.

One submission came from a worker involved with the 111 Covid-19 response line. They say this service is provided by “hundreds of temporary employees, without proper contracts, no benefits, no holiday entitlement”.

They added, “We are crammed into a call centre. All we have been told to do is to sanitise our workstations every few hours. But the site isn’t being sanitised. I’ve never seen our communal equipment getting sanitised.”

They said workers had been told they would be on statutory sick pay (SSP) if they stayed at home. “All of the employee comments on our shared comms system are saying ‘I can’t afford to live on that, I’ll be in no matter how bad I get’. I’ve seen sick people coming into our call centre displaying symptoms.

Help

“We are key workers that could be kept safe at home if our bosses just gave us some help. It’s all well and good clapping for NHS workers but you aren’t taking care of us.”

A worker for a “large construction company in north London” said bosses were giving people “no choice but to come into the office”.

“Staff continue to sit at less than 1m apart,” they said. “Some staff have taken it upon themselves not to come into the office but have been told they will not be paid.

“We have people with asthma, someone who is going through immunotherapy and pregnant women. All of us continue to come to the office as it feels like we have no better options.

“Each day we fear we might get a virus from each other. Myself, I feel emotionally drained and tired.”

An EE call centre worker said staff are being made to keep working as bosses call them “key workers”.

“There are hundreds of people working in our centres,” they said. “There has been no deep cleaning done and some people are off self-isolating because they have symptoms of the virus.”

A worker at Barclays Bank wrote, “The bank seems to feel it’s business as usual.”

They said workers with childcare issues were told to choose whether to take holiday, if it was available, or unpaid leave.

“Working for a global company this is shocking,” they said. “I feel truly vulnerable. My daughter’s school is pleading not to send the children in, yet I feel I have not option.”

The worker added that it had fallen to staff to try and make the workplace safer.

It’s all well and good clapping for NHS workers but you aren’t taking care of us

“To encourage customers to social distance staff have had to out of their own pocket pay for tape to mark out spaces on the floor,” they said.

“Our branch hasn’t been cleaned this week as our cleaner is on holiday. Staff are having to do this. Staff decided off their own back to only allow two of our self-serve devices to be used to adhere to the rules. Again us front line workers devised this as nothing had been forthcoming from management.”

An AXA Motor Claims worker said staff were still being forced to commute in “whilst the Operations Managers work from the comfort and safety of their own homes”.

The partner of a DPD depot worker said bosses had told workers that if they self-isolated “this would be added to their Bradford factor index score”.

This means workers risk disciplinary action or losing their job.

Inhumane

“There were many more inhumane points made,” they wrote. “We are now left in a position where we are self-isolating, with no income apart from SSP if they decide to pay it and the threat of job loss hanging over my husband’s head.”

Another wrote about their partner being forced to work by IWG Group, which owns Regus business centres. “There is no flexible working or working from home, no hand sanitiser,” they wrote. “They are being asked to continue to conduct tours of the centres, host meetings.

“Staff are being told if they do not come in, they will not be paid. It is beyond irresponsible. There is a backlash on Twitter, a petition and staff are in tears as they are put in an invidious position, deciding between health or an income.”

The committee found widespread confusion over which workplaces should stay open, and over how the government’s Job Retention Scheme would work.

No hand sanitiser, no social distancing, no protection – workers speak out
No hand sanitiser, no social distancing, no protection – workers speak out
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Under the scheme, some bosses can “furlough” workers but keep them as employees, and the government will cover 80 percent of workers’ wages.

But many workers say their bosses have told them they aren’t eligible, or that they won’t be paid until the government pays firms.

One submission to the Beis committee complained that Argos is “using the loophole of having stores in a supermarket” to trade as normal.

“They are also forcing all Argos workers from their closed stand-alone stores, to go and work in the stores that are still trading,” they said.

“If they refuse, they are being sent home without pay, and refused furlough.”

Other bosses rushed to sack workers ahead of the government announcement.

“Wren Kitchens sacked hundreds and hundreds of employees an hour before the lockdown order, fully aware that the government would have paid wages anyway” read one submission.

“Hundreds of workers were left with no government support or job, mainly showroom staff. The company has been going on for weeks about how they’re very rich and will take care of employees.

“They offered nothing in the way of support and many people were sacked shortly after making the company thousands.”

Read more at bit.ly/Beisreport Have you been affected at work by the coronavirus crisis? Get in touch with us at [email protected]

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