Socialist Worker

‘It’s profit over health always’—workers forced into unsafe workplaces speak out

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2739

Construction bosses have kept sites open at the expense of workers health

Construction bosses have kept sites open (Pic: Socialist Worker )


Coronavirus outbreaks are hitting workplaces every day as the Tories’ latest lockdown fails to keep working class people safe.

One worker at a Muller factory in Somerset has died after testing positive for Covid-19. Some 47 others have tested positive, and 95 are self-isolating. Other workers say bosses have told them to keep coming to work.

Bristol council said that 19 workplaces in the city had coronavirus outbreaks as of 15 January. The figure is three more than the 16 recorded on 8 January.

Some 26 workers on a construction site at the Royal Liverpool Hospital have contracted the virus. Yet Laing O’Rourke bosses confirmed that the project, employing around 1,000 staff, is continuing.

Pete is one of those workers who contracted the virus after working there. “The site is working to Covid restrictions but the type of work I do makes it hard to social distance,” he told Socialist Worker.

“I have to work with a colleague due to safety procedures. Also you are required to wear safety glasses with a mask, which means your visibility is restricted due to the glasses fogging up.

“There is obviously pressure on employees to travel to the site when required or you will receive no pay.”

Hundreds of thousands of workers across Britain are being put at risk—and not because they grab a takeaway coffee but because of dangerous workplaces.

Alistair, an electrician working at the Faslane submarine base in Scotland, told Socialist Worker that it’s difficult to socially distance at work. “They are making people have their lunch on site,” he said. “We have ours in a portacabin with screens up, but you are back to back.

“There is no proper social distancing at the canteen.”

Alistair added that workers had walked off site the day before the latest lockdown began over the lack of distancing—and were “laughed at”. He said bosses haven’t treated the virus as a major issue. 

“On the first day back after Christmas you always get a return to work briefing,” he said. “Not one mention of Covid-19. Supervisors are not doing anything to check people’s mental health.

“They roll out a talk every now and then to tick a box, but when you raise a concern it’s the old, ‘You know where the gate is’ routine.”

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In London, ongoing building work is one of the factors causing regular overcrowding in Tube stations. Piotr, who works on a major construction project in the capital, told Socialist Worker the commute is “one of the things that worries me most”. 

“When I arrive in the morning, the underground station is very crowded,” he said. “It’s impossible not to be close to other people. I feel the station is a place that the virus spreads, but I can’t avoid it.”

The work itself makes it hard to stick to safety measures too. “There are all the safety notices and instructions on the site,” said Piotr. “They fulfil everything they are supposed to, I’m sure.

“But when you are building it is very hard not to be close to other people. You need sometimes two or three people to do a job, or you need to be close enough to hear instructions.”

Many workers feel they have no choice but to keep going to work despite the health risks.

“We are all going to work because we have to or we will not be paid,” said Piotr. “I like to work. But if it was possible not to work and have money, I would rather be safe.”

Alistair said temporary contracts also make it harder to raise safety issues.

“Even though we are full-time employed, they only offer three-month contracts at a time,” he explained. “This stops any industrial action or people saying anything.”

Construction workers aren’t the only ones being put at risk. The majority of workers at DVLA sites in Swansea are still expected to go into work despite an outbreak at a contact centre last month.

Some 352 positive Covid-19 cases had been identified at the centre since the start of September. But now around 1,800 workers are still physically in work at the sites, compared to around 250 earlier in the pandemic.

Many other people are being pressured into unsafe situations.

Household 

Louise, a family support worker, said her bosses expect staff to continue home visits despite a ban on household mixing. 

“We could see families via Zoom or ring them, but they want us to see them face to face,” Louise told Socialist Worker. “Managers and fat cats are sitting pretty, not visiting families like us minions.”

Vincent works in London, helping with the process of recruiting hospital staff. He said his work could be done at home—but he and others have been told to be in the office.

“I was really annoyed,” he told Socialist Worker. “I think it’s ridiculous that I still have to go into work. I raised working from home with my manager and she said no, I would rather have you in the office. I felt like I had no choice but to go in.”

Workers are left worrying that they may contract or spread the virus. “I’m very careful, but I think everyone’s at risk really,” said Vincent.

Louise said workers feel “unheard, not listened to, stressed, frustrated, pressurised, underpaid and like a statistic”.

“This is resulting in headaches, disturbed sleep, lack of appetite and tension and irritability at home,” she said. “We also have physical symptoms of anxiety like nausea, panic attacks, depression, stress and cold sores. 

“We deal with vulnerable people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing, and we’re supposed to be positive and upbeat. So we feel like we’re not giving our best to them as well.”

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Vincent said he thinks other workers have been “afraid to speak up” about the health risks of being in work. “They might lose their job, or might not know how to go about asking to work from home,” he said.

Pete said he has worked in four different countries since last March and feels that Britain is worse in terms of protecting workers’ safety. “When I arrived on site after working in Germany, I was allowed back without any questionnaire about my recent activities,” he said.

“England has not dealt with the pandemic well. Personally I think the government reacted too slowly with lockdown and it didn’t go far enough.”

The Tories keep saying people should work from home where possible. But it’s just empty words. There’s nothing to stop bosses forcing workers to attend workplaces. And many people are too fearful of losing pay or their job altogether to challenge them.

“I think the government should be a bit more strict about it,” said Vincent. “I don’t like them putting it as if it’s an option.

“Rather than saying stay at home unless you really have to go to work, they should just say you should stay at home.”

Yet for the bosses and their Tory backers, profit comes before workers’ safety. Much so-called “essential” work could easily be delayed, except for the fact that it’s essential for making money.

As Piotr said, “We are building flats. Does it really matter if they are completed six months later than they will be now?”

The TUC union federation has condemned the fact that so many workers’ lives are being put at risk. But it hasn’t called any action over the scandal. Nor have other unions.

“I think the unions could have been more active on the sites, talking to the employees more and trying to get non-essential sites closed,” said Pete.

Alistair said the Scottish government’s failure to talk about construction workers reflects union inaction. “I don’t think their voice is loud enough,” he said.

“In construction, it’s profit over health always. We need to shut the jobs, furlough the workers and keep everyone safe.”

Names have been changed

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