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Anger over unsafe work conditions spurs some coronavirus strikes

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Issue 2696
Cleaners protest outside the hospital
Cleaners protest outside the hospital (Pic: Twitter/Helen O’Connor)

Several groups of workers have taken the issue of coronavirus safety into their own hands.

Royal Mail workers in South West London walked out last week over the lack of hand gels and wipes to protect them from the virus.

Postal workers, particularly delivery staff, meet many people during their work but had not been given proper protection.

Bin collections in some areas of Glasgow were suspended last week after refuse workers staged a sit-in because they had no access to hand sanitiser or hot water at their depot.

Workers at the Polmadie depot refused to work on Thursday of last week, leaving parts of the south east of the city without collections.

One striker told Socialist Worker, “It’s an insult we don’t have the basics, it’s not asking for much.

“Managers gave us some more after we walked out.”

Workers at Soas, University of London won key demands after they threatened to walk out unless bosses agreed to close the site. It follows a student being diagnosed with coronavirus.

Sandy Nicoll is a branch secretary of the Unison union at Soas. He told Socialist Worker, “What brought things to a head was the mishandling of the cleaners in relation to the coronavirus case.

“We found out last Thursday morning that a student had begun to feel ill the previous Friday. They went home and were later confirmed as having the virus.


“We then discovered that Soas had contacted all students and lecturers about it, but failed to contact the cleaners who had cleaned that room after the student had been there.

“If they have failed to take even the most basic steps, it shows they are incapable of managing this situation. That led people to feel really uncomfortable.”

Workers told bosses that if they did not agree to close Soas by Tuesday of this week, they would organise a walkout. Students have also called their own strike.

Sandy said, “We had a branch committee meeting via Whatsapp over the weekend. We agreed a statement and a plan.

“It isn’t only being at Soas that people are worried about, it’s also taking public transport into central London. One of our members described the university as a ‘static cruise ship’.

“Nobody wants to carry on working in this context.”

The threat of action forced bosses to concede the union’s demands.

PSA car plants at Ellesmere Port and Luton were closed this week after French unions said they would call strikes unless production stopped across Europe.

In other workplaces, anger and fear has pushed management into making concessions.

After furious meetings by PCS union members in one jobcentre, bosses agreed that anyone with underlying health conditions should be pulled off “frontline” work.

One jobcentre worker told Socialist Worker, “Managers are saying it’s business as usual. But business as usual has become like a swear word in our office.

“People are furious that the idea of herd immunity will leave so many people vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, other workers are refusing to be blackmailed out of taking action by bosses. 

Workers at a south east London hospital where some coronavirus cases have been treated walked off the job last Thursday in fury at unpaid wages.

Around 30 cleaning and catering workers struck unofficially after finding out that subcontractor ISS had not stumped up money it owed.

Some of the GMB union members had been underpaid on 27 February—and were disappointed to find out that they had not received more money in their new wage slips.

Bosses quickly promised to stump up the cash as workers queued up outside their office last Thursday.


Workers went back to work on the following day—then held a lunchtime protest when they saw that bosses hadn’t paid out.

One cleaner said, “It has been disgusting the way they treat us.

“We are working with coronavirus in the hospital and not getting paid for it.

“If we don’t clean the ward it is a state and we have a chance of catching coronavirus here.”

The ISS director at the hospital agreed to meet with union officials, but then branded their demand for £100 compensation for each worker as “ransom”. Outsourced support staff are expected to be on the front line of the coronavirus fight, but are treated with contempt.

Bosses should pay up—and put workers and patients before profit. One domestic said, “I need to pay rent today. I am so stressed the whole day. I can’t get the strength to work.

“We need to get money.”

Workers and their union leaders should not hold back from strikes because of the coronavirus threat.

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