Socialist Worker

Thousands forced back to work in unsafe conditions at government departments

by Nick Clark
Issue No. 2701

Coronavirus advice for workers staffing phone lines at the Public Health Wales call centre in Cardiff. But some call centre workers say they dont feel safe at work

Coronavirus advice for workers staffing phone lines at the Public Health Wales call centre in Cardiff. But are call centre workers being kept safe? (Pic: PA)


More than 5,000 people are being made to go into work to operate the government’s payment scheme for laid off workers.

The scheme began operating on Monday of this week. It sees the government pay bosses 80 percent of wages for workers laid off during the coronavirus outbreak.

Yet thousands of people operating the scheme’s phonelines are being made to go into work themselves.

Bosses at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC)—which runs the scheme—haven’t put into place measures to allow call centre workers to work from home.

That means some 5,000 people are still going to work in HMRC offices every day. That’s despite at least five HMRC call centre workers having already died of coronavirus.

On top of that, bosses want to draft in some 6,000 extra workers from other government departments or areas of HMRC to operate the phonelines.

At least some of them will have been working from home.

One HMRC worker and PCS union rep told Socialist Worker that since the outbreak, bosses had provided some IT equipment allowing people to work from home.

Kit

But, “Rather than give the kit to work at home to those call centre workers, they’ve given the kit to people who were already at home doing other areas of work.”

The first coronavirus death of an HMRC call centre worker was reported at the end of March in an office in Salford. Since then, at least four others are also reported to have died of the virus.

Yet bosses have dragged their feet to provide equipment that allows people to work from home. And HMRC workers report that conditions are still unsafe—with inadequate protective equipment, and no proper social distancing measures in place.

At the start of April, HMRC workers complained of having to sit too close together. And in at least one office, the only protective equipment workers were given were paper towels to hold while using door handles.

One PCS rep said, “The employer has given lots of assurances. We’ve now got hygiene stewards, which is basically a cleaner in a yellow jacket cleaning door handles and lift buttons.

“But my understanding is it’s still the case that there are issues with social distancing and a lack of hand sanitiser.”

Workers in several other government departments fear their bosses want to force them back into their offices.

Bosses at the Passport Office had planned to send up to 2,000 workers back to carry out non-essential work. They shelved the plans after opposition from the PCS.

And in the Department for Work and Pensions, several workers are also still waiting for equipment to work from home. The PCS rep said, “Health and safety laws say that if your workplace is unsafe, you have a right to refuse to work.”

They added, “We should be campaigning to make sure everyone has the equipment they need to work from home—and against any attempt to force us back into the offices.”


Bias against BME workers in NHS

Carol Cooper, head of equality, at Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust, has told the Nursing Times that black and Asian nurses and healthcare assistants felt they were being picked to work on coronavirus wards more than their white colleagues.

“BME staff feel that they are being put on Covid-19 wards and exposed to patients with Covid-19 over and above their colleagues,” said Cooper.

“Some are saying they are being taken from the wards that they usually work on and put on the Covid wards and they feel that there is a bias.

“The same bias that existed before they are feeling is now influencing their being appointed and they are terrified, everybody is terrified.

“There are multiple deprivations that people are subject to now. I think Covid is throwing a light on the cracks in society.

“We are going to have to rethink how we exist as a society, how we care for one another, how we care for the most vulnerable people in our society.”


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