Eleven bus workers have now died after contracting Covid-19, with tens of thousands more transport workers terrified of the same fate.
Emeka Nyack Ihenacho, who had mild asthma, died on Saturday after testing positive for coronavirus and being discharged from hospital.
His mother, Anne Nyack, told the Islington Gazette that Emeka didn’t want to miss work for fears that “they are going to cut my pay”. “
My son put his life at risk to do a job he loved and was devoted to,” she said.
“I’m fighting his corner and when all this is over I’m going to fight to make sure that, in the event of anything like this happening again, they have the right protective clothing. I will team up with the Unite union and fight for public workers.”
Richard, a driver at Holloway bus garage in north London said that “it’s very scary to be a bus driver right now”.
“There’s no soap, no toilet paper—we brought it forward to the managers and they looked at us like we were crazy. They said ‘maybe the drivers had taken it'."
He told Socialist worker that drivers were “forced” back to work, after bosses threatened to pay them a lower statutory sick pay, rather than the company sick pay they should be entitled to.
Peter Kavanagh, Unite regional secretary, said “Unite is doing everything within its power to ensure bus workers’ safety.
“The release of our safety reps means that in all garages Unite is now ensuring that all safety measures are being observed and strictly adhered to.”
“There’s no soap, no toilet paper—we brought it forward to the managers and they looked at us like we were crazy. They said ‘maybe the drivers had taken it'
But Richard said Unite, which represents the majority of London bus drivers, isn’t doing enough.
“The union needs to come down to the garages and see that hand gel is not reaching us.”
“The union needs to stop talking with the government and listen to what its members are saying,” he said.
The deaths come among reports of workers forced back to work despite health conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus.
Steve Byrne posted on Twitter explaining that he’s a London bus driver and has been self-isolating due to a rare blood disease.
He received a letter on 31 March from Metroline management explaining that he is “not entitled to sick pay”, but could take annual leave if he wishes.
And as news of transport workers’ deaths broke last weekend, Unite insisted that London buses were deep cleaned every night.
But Richard said this is far from the case. “Buses aren’t being deep cleaned all all. Drivers are bringing in their own supplies and cleaning the buses themselves.”
The lockdown also intensifies insanitary conditions that bus drivers are forced to contend with on a daily basis.
The long-standing failure of Transport for London and bus companies to provide toilets for drivers mean they are forced to rely on pubs and cafes—which are now closed.
In addition to being unable to wash their hands thorough the day, workers say conditions are insanitary at Holloway bus garage, which is operated by Metroline.
“The water's cold, and they don’t fix it. You tell management, they’re not bothered, they’ve got a separate toilet and the water’s hot in there,” said Richard.
The union is now calling for the front doors of buses to be closed off, and passengers to enter and exit the buses by rear doors, to reduce contact with the drivers.
On Tuesday this week a letter from bus bosses told workers that any drivers found to be closing off parts of the bus “would be dealt with formally”.
On Wednesday, Transport for London began a trial of several services that operate out of Walworth bus station.
It’s a start, but needs to be rolled out immediately across the network. Transport workers’ lives depend on it.
For now, the situation for bus workers is one of fear—and anger. “My kids are asking if I’m OK, our families are worried about us,” said Richard.