Socialist Worker

‘Working in danger because of profit’

Sadie Robinson investigates how the Tories’ response to coronavirus is wreaking havoc on millions of workers’ lives—and how the bosses are taking advantage

Issue No. 2699

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Bosses claim selling luxury goods and services is 'essential' (Pic: Tony Webster/Flickr)


Business as usual. That’s the message from bosses across Britain as the coronavirus crisis grows. In call centres, factories, offices and shops people are being threatened with disciplinary action, pay cuts or the sack if they don’t come to work.

It’s a terrifying situation that makes a mockery of the Tories’ claim that they are protecting workers.

One worker at a “large construction company in north London” described how bosses were giving people “no choice but to come into the office”. Workers who don’t go in have been told “they will not be paid”.

“Staff sit less than 1 metre apart,” said the worker. “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.”

The partner of a DPD depot worker said bosses there 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. 

They described “self-isolating, with no income apart from statutory sick pay—if they decide to pay it—and the threat of job loss hanging over my husband’s head”. These are just two responses to an appeal from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) committee of MPs. It asked workers to get in touch about how their bosses were ­responding to the crisis. 

Within days it had received over 2,000 submissions from scared—and angry— workers. 

Time after time, workers ask why ­selling things and boosting firms’ ­profits is being put before their health. 

Some workers’ situations may have changed since they made their submissions. Yet their stories show how the government’s failure to instruct firms to close puts lives at risk.

A BT call centre worker described people being “shoved in like sardines”. They work in sales and retention, yet have been told they are a key worker and must keep going to work.

A Barclaycard call centre worker who chases credit card arrears said, “They are insisting our work is essential and making people come in. Call centres are a hotbed for disease as people share desks.

“But they are adamant they want us in to collect money.”

Distribution

The government has said everyone who can work from home should do so. It said only “key workers”—such as NHS staff or food distribution workers—should be going out to work.

Yet for greedy bosses, anyone who can keep them in profit is a “key worker”, and many are forced to work without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). 

One worker employed by The Range homeware shop told the committee, “We’ve had no PPE, no hand sanitisers provided. We’ve had people in buying new nets, curtains, paint and picture frames. Definitely not essential.” Yet staff had been told they are key workers. Those at Dexters Estate Agents were told the same.

“They continue to make their staff travel to offices using public transport and to go on viewings,” wrote one worker. “They have not offered support to vulnerable individuals including their pregnant staff.

“Those staff diagnosed with coronavirus have gone home with colleagues continuing to work in the same office without ­cleaning taking place! Staff are not social distancing and the premises aren’t being sanitised.”

Debt collectors are apparently key workers too. 

One worker said the Yorkshire collection agency they work for “is open as usual and telling staff that they are key workers so their kids can be at school”.

“Please help, it scares us all to be there,” they said. “It is a call centre environment and social distancing is near impossible.”

Meanwhile at a time of a national health emergency, what’s more essential than Sky TV? They described the stress of being made to come into contact with groups of different people every day.

“On an average day, we visit around seven homes per engineer to fit or service Sky TV, a luxury product,” they said. “With a whole family home during a lockdown, it can be hard to ask them to keep their distance.

“Many of our engineers would be classed in the high risk category, or have family members/people they share a household with in that category. 

“Basically, us engineers feel we are endangering ourselves for the profits of Sky.”

Faced with unsafe conditions, some workers have taken matters into their own hands. A Barclays bank worker said, “To encourage customers to social distance, staff have had to pay out of their own pocket for tape to mark out spaces on the floor.

“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 bat to only allow two of our self-service devices to be used to adhere to the rules.

“Again us frontline workers devised this as nothing had been forthcoming from management.”

And others are furious at the token gestures of support for workers from the top, while the truth is they are treated like dirt.

One worker involved with the 111 Covid-19 helpline said the service is provided by “hundreds of temporary employees, without proper contracts, no benefits, no holiday entitlement”.

They described how workers who stay home have been told they will only receive statutory sick pay. 

Many said this would push them to continue coming to work if they got sick as they could not afford to live otherwise.

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


Job Retention Scheme will bail out the bosses 

The Tories have said they will cover 80 percent of some workers’ wages if their jobs are put on hold—furloughed—due to the crisis. Their Job Retention Scheme means some bosses can keep workers as employees but let the government pick up the wage tab.

The announcement gave the impression that ordinary people whose jobs are affected would not suffer. But it still means a 20 percent pay cut for many people who already struggle.

The scheme doesn’t apply to every worker. And some bosses are refusing to furlough staff. 

The committee heard how Argos is “using the loophole of having stores in a supermarket” to keep trading.

"They are forcing all Argos workers from their closed stand-alone stores to go and work in the stores that are still trading,” said one submission. “If they refuse, they are being sent home without pay, and refused furlough.”

At Sports Direct, some staff are being pulled into work and say they are not being offered furlough.

Frightened

One said, “They are forcing management to work in stores daily to complete redundant tasks such as price changes. They have given us the option to go home and not work, but they won’t pay us a penny.

“We now have the choice to either protect or feed our families. Myself and my colleagues are frightened.”

Millions of workers don’t know whether they will get anything from the scheme—and if so, how long they will have to wait.

A Wetherspoon worker said bosses had left staff “in a very uncertain situation in terms of their wages”.

“Although I work full time (between 37-39 hours), I have received no confirmation of whether I will be paid 80 percent of my average earnings, or 80 percent of my contracted hours (12 hours),” they said. The worker said Wetherspoon bosses had given “no assurances of when we’ll be paid”. But they said that founder “Tim Martin has said he intends not to pay staff until the government grant is given to businesses. Which means no further pay until the end of April. 

“Considering his share in the company is worth approx £500 million, he could easily afford to look after his staff if he chose to.”

The worker said Martin should stop treating staff as “disposable commodities”.

“Wetherspoon should not tell furloughed staff to just ‘go to Tesco’ like they have done,” they said. “To put the livelihoods of over 40,000 employees in jeopardy is nothing short of greed.”

Other bosses rushed to sack workers ahead of the government announcing the scheme.

“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.


Some will get no support at all

Government measures to protect workers’ wages during the coronavirus crisis will still leave some with nothing, according to a think tank.

The government’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) guarantee 80 percent of some workers’ incomes.

But the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) last week said there is “a lot of variation” in how people will be affected.

“Some people still get no income replacement,” it said. “The JRS will not provide support for those who lose their job completely, who have to take unpaid leave to cover caring responsibilities (for example looking after their children), or who see a cut in their earnings but continue to work.”

And some self-employed people “will get no support at all”.

Receive

“In total around two million people with some self-employment income (38 percent of them) will not have it covered by the SEISS,” the IFS said. For some this is because they receive less than half their income from self-employment, because they started their business since April last year or because their income is too high.

Those who are eligible “may struggle financially as they have to wait until early June to get cash”. 

Nearly half would see their family income drop by at least 40 percent in the short term. Yet many don’t have cash available to cover three months of lost earnings.

Employees who are furloughed will still lose an average of around 13 percent of their net family income under the measures. Those who are self-employed whose businesses close completely will lose around 14 percent “once SEISS is fully in place”. 

And the IFS warned that the Tory measures mean “some will fall through the gaps completely”.


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