By Sarah Bates
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Workers force closure of libraries they say are unsafe

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Issue 2698
The Whitechapel Idea Store
The Whitechapel Idea Store is now closed (Pic: Julian Osley)

Council workers in Tower Hamlets, east London, forced the closure of library hubs in the borough after bosses played fast and loose with health and safety measures.

Workers across seven “Idea Stores” in the borough—libraries that include other services—said they wouldn’t come back to work because bosses were ignoring health advice.

Matt, an Idea Store worker and Unison union rep, told Socialist Worker that workers felt “absolute anger and hatred at the bosses. There’s a complete and utter contempt that they kept opening stores despite the threat to the health of the staff.”

Workers have been having daily briefings with council bosses about how their services would operate during the coronavirus crisis.

And frustrated by the lack of the action from the top, Idea Store workers took matters into their own hands.

Workers separate computers to ensure a 2 metre distance and last week they started to pare back some Idea Store services, such as story times and the over 50s club.

But they were held back by management dragging their heels. For instance, bosses told workers they weren’t allowed to wear face masks while on shift, because “they didn’t work”.


Matt says his workplace was a potential breeding ground for infection. “Hand washing stations were installed in buildings—but without any hand fluid. Computers weren’t being cleaned, and different people were using them every hour.”

On Saturday morning, workers got an email from the bosses telling them books could be contagious, and an order to isolate them for 72 hours.

By Sunday, workers at the Whitechapel Idea Store set up a WhatsApp group containing nearly all the workers across the service.

And on Monday around 60 workers signed a letter declaring that because the council hadn’t put in the minimum requirements for work, they wouldn’t be returning to Idea Stores the next day.

“They said to HR that they wouldn’t be coming back in because their buildings aren’t safe,” said Matt.

Idea Store workers took matters into their own hands

“Top management and town hall management want to show they are in charge at all times. That’s why they didn’t shut the Idea Stores earlier.”

Matt said “now we have to fight to make sure that those of us that are fit, and want to help, have the equipment to do it at our own homes.

“We could be phoning vulnerable people, setting up story times online—we can do all that, but we’re not going to be told we can do them in unsafe buildings.”

Workers names have been changed.

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