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Risks is the TUC's weekly newsletter for safety reps and others, sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors.






Tube victory for union over track noise

Tube union RMT has suspended planned industrial action by drivers on four key London Underground lines after securing a ‘massive victory’ on the issue of excessive track noise. Drivers on the Jubilee, Central, Victoria and Northern Lines were scheduled to take industrial action short of a strike by driving trains in manual mode at a reduced speed in areas using the controversial Pandrol Vanguard rail fixing system (Risks 917). Workers wanted action to mitigate excessive noise and to alleviate the distraction, discomfort and anxiety caused in the affected areas. The action was suspected after Tube bosses agreed to introduce speed restrictions.  They also agreed to increase rail grinding to bring down noise, with the process monitored by RMT health and safety reps. The company has made available £10 million to cover the remedial work and, in the long-term has agreed to dispense with the Pandrol Vanguard system. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “This is a massive victory for the union, for our members and for RMT’s strategy of declaring appropriate industrial action to leverage negotiations with the employer.” He added: “I want to pay tribute to RMT’s Tube drivers and our health and safety reps and negotiators who have secured this major victory for militant trade unionism. The action is suspended but the dispute remains on and we remain vigilant as the agreed programme is rolled out.”
RMT news release.

Usdaw breaks breakthrough at JD Sports warehouse

Retail trade union Usdaw has won a major victory in its campaign against ‘crushing fatigue’ at a JD Sports’ Kingsway distribution centre.  In July, over 600 JD Sports workers at the Rochdale site submitted a grievance about cuts to rest breaks for workers on ‘gruelling’ 12-hour night shifts. After several meetings with Usdaw and regular union protests outside the site, the company has now agreed to consult with their workers again, with a view to re-instating the breaks.  Usdaw divisional officer Mike Aylward said: “We are pleased that the management have listened to their staff, although they are still trying to deny the serious health and safety implications of getting rid of the breaks. It is the right decision to back away from forcing staff to work from 6pm to 6am with just two breaks. People were in genuine fear for their safety in conditions that would have resulted in crushing fatigue.” He added: “Workers at JD Sports distribution are joining Usdaw for an independent voice and to say enough is enough. Now that we have won this battle, the campaign continues to improve all terms and conditions of employment at the site. JD is a highly successful, international, multi-billion pound business and by far Rochdale’s biggest private sector employer, with over 4,000 staff. They should not be trying to get away the bare minimum employment standards and Usdaw intends to make sure they don’t.”
Usdaw news release.

Stars backs Asda workers in contract fight

Top stars have joined almost 24,000 members of the public in backing the fight by Asda workers against a controversial new contract (Risks 915). Actor Paul McGann, who starred in cult hit Withnail and I and Aliens 3, and Rob Delaney, who appeared in Catastrophe and Deadpool 2, both gave their support ahead of a mass protest in Leeds on 16 October. McGann was snapped holding a ‘standing with Asda workers’ placard, while Delaney tweeted GMB’s ‘Asda respect your workers’ video – which has already reached more than 4 million people online. A petition calling on Asda to treat its workers with respect has now received nearly 24,000 signatures. Asda has told workers they must sign the 'flexible' Contract 6 - which will see them lose all their paid breaks and forced to work bank holidays – or be sacked on 2 November. GMB says latest company accounts show Asda directors ‘trousered a whopping £12 million last year’ and profits rocketed more than £92 million, while at the same time Asda slashed 5,000 jobs. Gary Carter, GMB national officer, said: “This new contract, with the contractual changes it brings, is forcing workers to choose between looking after their disabled son, elderly mother or vulnerable partner and losing their job – it’s just not right. We’re calling on Asda to respect its workforce and offer dedicated, long-serving staff a better deal.”
GMB news releaseSign the petition.

Crossrail site union-busting trumps safety concerns

Unite has accused the joint venture company running London’s giant Crossrail project of dangerous ‘union-busting’ in its attempts to block a union official from joining safety investigations at the Bond Street station site. The union said workers on the Costain/Skanska joint venture (CSJV) are ‘frightened’ about air quality following four recent deaths (Risks 918). Unite is concerned at a top-level decision to bar union officer Guy Langston from joining two union safety reps in observing an independent air monitoring exercise at the site. Unite said: “The effective barring of Unite officials from the site appears to be part of the CSJV’s playbook and follows its refusal to allow Unite standard access to its Euston HS2 site.” Unite national officer Jerry Swain said: “Costain and Skanska have sunk to a new low. While Unite’s official has been going the extra mile to ensure that workers are reassured about their safety, following recent tragic events, there primary focus is to continue their union-busting.” He added: “Excluding the union official from attending the results of the air quality monitoring testing is only going to further unsettle the workforce and make it appear there is something to hide.” Swain concluded: “CSJV’s union-busting at Bond Street risks causing further industrial relations issues especially during this time of heightened concerns. Crossrail as the client needs to pull its contractor CSJV into line if it wishes to avoid further potential delays.”
Unite news releaseMorning StarConstruction Enquirer.

Violence hits Scottish shopworkers over 17 times a year

Shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw has released ‘shocking’ statistics from its annual survey revealing an average Scottish shopworker is verbally abused, threatened or assaulted 17 times a year, or more than once every three weeks. While not all shopworkers suffer to this extent, the union says some experience much higher levels of abuse, threats and violence. Usdaw’s ‘Freedom from Fear’ survey of over 1,000 retail staff found that this year over 60 per cent of Scottish shopworkers experienced verbal abuse and 2.3 per cent were assaulted, suggesting there are more than 15 assaults on shopworkers every day in Scotland. The union has called on the Scottish government to back a Protection of Workers Bill promoted by Labour MSP Daniel Johnson MSP. The Bill was formally lodged with the parliament on 11 October after an extensive consultation process. It seeks to provide additional protections for retail staff, including those who sell age-restricted items, where retail staff are required to police and enforce the rules. Usdaw said the proposed law is overwhelmingly backed by shopworkers and supported by the Scottish Retail Consortium, Co-op and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation. Paddy Lillis, Usdaw’s general secretary, said: “Violence, threats and abuse against workers is totally unacceptable and we want the Scottish government to act by supporting Daniel Johnson’s Bill. The statistics are shocking, showing that on average a Scottish shopworker can end up on the wrong side of a verbal or physical assault more than once every three weeks. Our message is clear, abuse is not a part of the job.” He added: “There needs to be a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, the judiciary and most importantly criminals. Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law.”
Usdaw news release, including Voices from the Scottish frontline.

Usdaw welcomes action call on abuse of shopworkers

The shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw has welcomed an intervention in the Queen’s Speech debate by Labour David Hanson, who called on the government to include measures to protect shopworkers in the proposed violent crime bill. Speaking in the House of Commons, the MP for Delyn said: “I hope that when the violent crime Bill is brought before the House, there will be an opportunity for action to be taken on protecting shop staff by giving greater support to measures that will discourage violence against them and ensuring that they live free from fear about their daily workplace.” He added: “Nobody apart from the current government has resisted the potential for action on this. I hope that the consultation that the government have undertaken will prove fruitful, but I want to see it come back before Christmas, as promised.” Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis commented: “We have consistently demonstrated the full extent of violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers. Four months ago we and the retail employers responded to the Home Office ‘call for evidence’ and with one voice we pushed for action to tackle this growing problem. The government now has the opportunity to deliver the protections shopworkers need through their violent crime bill.” He added: “Our message is clear, abuse is not a part of the job. We continue to call for stiffer penalties for those who assault shopworkers and the introduction of a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, courts and most importantly criminals.”
Usdaw news releaseHansard debate, 14 October 2019, volume 666, column 51, David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab).

Northern safety reps meet to discuss best practice

Over 70 health and safety reps from a wide range of unions met in Newcastle in September to discuss union best practice in a vast evolving world of work, with work-related stress and mental health problems emerging as a key concern. In a report from Northern TUC, which hosted the event, the union body said that for the first time work-related stress, anxiety or depression accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill-health in Great Britain. Delegates heard that around two-thirds of children entering primary school will, when they start work, be moving into jobs that don’t yet exist yet. The workplace of 2030 will be very different from the workplace of today; not only more technological, but older, multi-generational, multi-cultural, more diverse in its make-up and in how work and employment are organised, they were told. These changes will present some new health and safety challenges, particularly as the erosion of regulation and a lack of resources for enforcement leave workplaces unpoliced. Northern TUC noted: “Campaigns on health and wellbeing make the union visible and relevant; create opportunities for activism; build a sense of collectivism – and demonstrate that by working together, members can, and do, change things.”
TUC news releaseblog and Health, safety and wellbeing guide.

Mental health ‘is a trade union issue’

The shopworkers’ trade union leader Paddy Lillis has highlighted the positive role of trade union workplace reps in supporting members experiencing mental health problems. Speaking on the 10 October World Mental Health Day, the Usdaw general secretary said his union’s ‘Time for Better Pay’ survey of over 10,000 workers found that 63 per cent report that financial worries are having an impact on their mental health. He said the survey also ‘laid bare’ the issues that working people are facing as a result of low pay, short and zero hours contracts and insecure work. Lillis said: “Mental health is a trade union issue. Cuts to in-work benefits; rising living costs; wages falling in value; shorter working hours; redundancies, along with industry-wide cuts to budgets and staffing levels have left members feeling overstretched, overworked and undervalued.” He added: “Our ‘Time for Better Pay’ campaign seeks to tackle these deep-seated problems so many workers are facing… Usdaw is also training and resourcing our reps to help members who are struggling to cope and they are doing a great job.” The union leader concluded: “Usdaw’s ‘It’s good to talk’ campaign provides the union’s workplace reps with advice and resources to support members experiencing a common mental health problem such as depression or anxiety.” Journalists’ union NUJ is also campaigning on mental health issues at work. “The NUJ will continue to campaign for more open, inclusive and humane workplace cultures and calls for media organisations to develop workplace interventions, training and commit resources to support those in mental distress,” it said.
Usdaw news release and It’s good to talk and Time for better pay (T4BP) campaigns. NUJ news release. More on the hazards of low pay and insecure work.

Ambulance staff facing ‘epidemic’ of mental ill-health

A survey of ambulance staff has revealed they are suffering mental health problems at ‘epidemic’ levels. The initial findings from Unite are based on responses from the 550 members have so far taken part in its survey. Unite found over half of ambulance staff have suffered from anxiety (54 per cent) while 44 per cent recorded they had suffered from depression. Two-thirds (67 per cent) described being excessively irritable or angry and over threequarters (77 per cent) reported they were suffering from stress. Nearly a fifth (17 per cent) of respondents also reported trauma as a result of their work responding to life-threatening emergencies. The staff also registered other problems including tiredness (89 per cent), problems with sleep (85 per cent), generalised aches and pains (70 per cent), poor diet/loss of appetite (64 per cent), headaches (55 per cent) and gastric problems (54 per cent). Workers recorded the primary reasons for experiencing stress at work as excessive workloads, unrealistic targets, late finishes, the lack of flexible working and a lack of consultation on changes at work. Nearly a third of respondents reported having been diagnosed with a mental health problem and the vast majority of those said that their work contributed significantly to causing their mental health problem or to making it worse. Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) reported missing days of work over the last 12 months as a result, with the same proportion stating their employer was not supportive or understanding to people with mental health issues. Unite ambulance workers committee chair Debbie Wilkinson said: “The fact that frontline ambulance staff who save lives on a daily basis are suffering such serious levels of stress and mental ill-health is both intolerable and unsustainable. It is time for us to care for the carer.” Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett Thorpe said: “Unite will use the findings of the report to lobby individual trusts to remove the pressure from workers and tackle the mental ill-health epidemic which is afflicting our members.”
Unite news release.


Mental health sick leave rises for emergency workers

Data from 57 fire, police and ambulance services in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has revealed the number of staff who took time off due to mental ill-health rose by a third between 2014 and 2018. The figures obtained by the BBC show fire and ambulance services reported an increase in the number of staff taking mental health-related absences - such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and other stress - while police saw a slight drop in the last year after four years of rises. The figures released to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act show more than 5,000 police officers, serving with 29 out of the UK's 48 forces, took time off sick for mental health reasons during 2018/19, compared with just over 4,300 in 2014/15. Just over 2,700 ambulance staff took time off at nine of the UK's 15 services in 2018/19, compared with just under 1,700 five years earlier. There were 837 firefighters who took time off for mental health reasons at 19 out of the 49 services in the UK, compared with 608 in 2014/15. Dr Jennifer Wild, a consultant clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, said PTSD and depression were the “most common” mental health problems affecting emergency service staff. She said this was due to “repeated exposure to and the cumulative effects of trauma” combined with other stresses such as “long shifts and unsocial work hours.” Matt Wrack, general secretary at the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the “stigma” around mental health meant the figures would only represent those who were comfortable disclosing their distress to their employers. He said: “This might only be a fraction of those affected.”
BBC News Online.

Oxfam uncovers abuse in UK supermarket supply chains

Poor pay and harsh working conditions are common on farms and plantations that supply tea or fruit to global supermarkets including Lidl, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons, according to new research from Oxfam. The research, including in-depth interviews with workers in India and Brazil and a survey of workers in five other countries, highlights how the supermarkets’ relentless drive to cut costs and maximise profits is fuelling poverty, abuse and gender discrimination in their supply chains. Interviews with workers on 50 tea plantations in Assam revealed that cholera and typhoid are prevalent because workers lack access to toilets and safe drinking water. Women workers, who are often in the lowest paid most labour-intensive jobs, regularly clocked up 13 hours of back breaking work a day. Aldi, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s confirmed that they source their own brand tea from companies whose suppliers include the estates visited and Lidl was amongst other global supermarkets who source tea from the Assam region. Walmart, who own Asda, responded and neither denied nor confirmed links. On fruit farms in North East Brazil, workers reported developing allergies and serious skin diseases as a result of using pesticides and other chemicals without adequate protection on grape, melon and mango farms that supply supermarkets including Lidl and Sainsbury’s and previously Tesco and Morrisons. Walmart again neither denied nor confirmed links. Rachel Wilshaw, Oxfam’s ethical trade manager, said: “Despite some pockets of good practice, supermarkets’ relentless pursuit of profits continues to fuel poverty and human rights abuses in their supply chains. Supermarkets must do more to end exploitation, pay all their workers a living wage, ensure women get a fair deal and be more transparent about where they source their products.” She added: “Supermarkets are snapping up the lion’s share of the price we pay at the till but the workers who toil for hours to harvest tea and fruit face inhumane working conditions and are paid so little they can’t even feed their families.”
Oxfam news releaseBBC News Online.

Wales gets a new health at work partnership

A new partnership intended to improve the health of the workforce in Wales has been launched. The initiative was announced at the Wales Health at Work Summit 2019 hosted by the newly-formed Wales Health at Work Partnership (WHWP), ‘a coalition of organisations committed to improving workplace health and wellbeing in Wales’ and including the Welsh government, Public Health Wales and its ‘Healthy Working Wales’ programme, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) plus the Wales TUC and other social partners. Summit chair, Public Health Wales’ Jyoti Atri, said the initiative “brings together practitioners from across the public health and workplace health boundary. Working together we will bring improved outcomes for health and wellbeing through work.” The deputy director of HSE’s health and work programme, Peter Brown, said: “Health is a complex area and, as we all know, health improvements are not delivered in one day. That’s as true for HSE’s own role, preventing work-related ill-health, as for any other, and makes partnership working all the more important.”
HSE news release.


Tell the government to ban zero hours contracts!

The TUC is calling for an outright ban on zero hours contracts – and it wants your support. It says too many workers are being denied job security and can miss out on sick pay. Insecure work is out of control, it adds. Urging supporters to sign an online petition, the TUC says if ministers are serious about building a country that works for everyone, they must act now to ensure every worker gets fair pay, decent rights and a voice at work.
Sign the petition calling on the government to ban zero hours contracts.


Australia: Union-bashing bill jeopardises public health

A draconian ‘union-busting’ drive by Australia’s federal government will undermine public health campaigns, the country’s national union federation has warned. ACTU said the fight for public safety and to secure justice for asbestos victims would not have been won without a campaign of work stoppages, boycotts and protests. Asbestos victims joined unions at Parliament House this week to warn that the proposed Ensuring Integrity Bill would reduce the ability of unions to protect the public and working people. The propose law would mean a union official who visited a workplace without providing 24 hours notice would risk being disqualified from office and could face having their entire union shut down. According to ACTU, the new law would give Big Business many more opportunities to prevent unions from organising to bring any wrongdoing to light by bogging them down in endless, costly litigation, limiting unions capacity to fight for justice for the next victims of workplace negligence. ACTU president Michele O’Neil commented: “History tells us that threats to workers and the public’s health like asbestos only get tackled when workers stand together in their unions and demand change.” She added: “There is no ensuring integrity bill for the companies who continue to breach the ban on importing asbestos. Directors of companies who routinely put workers lives at risk are not disqualified. This union busting bill is about silencing working people and making workers and the public less safe. It must be stopped.”
ACTU news releaseNine News.

Bangladesh: Lululemon leggings workers routinely abused

Upmarket athletic wear brand Lululemon, whose £88 yoga and running leggings are favoured by celebrities, is sourcing clothing from a factory where Bangladeshi female factory workers claim they are beaten and physically assaulted. The Canadian brand recently launched a partnership with the United Nations to reduce stress levels and promote the mental health of aid workers. Yet, reports the Guardian, young female workers at a factory in Bangladesh making clothing for the label gave detailed accounts of how they struggled to survive on meagre wages and faced physical violence and regular humiliation at the hands of their managers, who called them “whores” and “sluts”. The factory is owned and run by the Youngone Corporation, which supplies Lululemon. Factory workers say anyone who breaks any rules or leaves earlier than expected is verbally abused by management and hit. Some said they had been made to work despite ill-health. Some labourers are paid 9,100 taka a month (£85) – less than the price of one pair of Lululemon leggings. The sum is well below the 16,000 taka unions have been demanding and falls far short of living wage estimates. Workers say they are forced to work overtime to hit targets, saying they sometimes felt immense pressure not to leave their workstations. Lululemon said it has a strict code of practice, and would immediately launch an investigation. A UN Foundation spokesperson said: “We believe all workers should be treated fairly and welcome Lululemon’s investigation.” Its three-year partnership with Lululemon was launched on 8 October, and entails the development of a curriculum of ‘evidence-based’ mindfulness, yoga and self-care training. Lululemon was criticised in 2013 for taking months to sign the union-brokered Bangladesh Safety Accord, after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers. A petition was launched for them to stand by their commitment to sustainability and ethics.
The GuardianUN Foundation news releaseLululemon global impact assessmentresponsible supply chain policies and news release.

Canada: Rubber workers’ plight should inspire national action

Jim Brophy, one of Canada’s leading experts in workplace health issues, is calling for a large-scale public investigation into occupational health risks and the compensation system for workers in the country. Brophy’s plea comes after a series of scandals which have seen decisions to deny occupational cancer compensation to thousands of workers. However, campaigns by unions and victims’ advocacy organisations have secured recent reversals of these decisions, with workers at a GE plant in Peterborough and several rubber plants in Kitchener, Canada’s ‘Rubbertown’, eventually receiving recognition their cancers, respiratory conditions and other diseases were caused by their work. Brophy, who holds academic posts at the University of Windsor in Ontario and at Scotland’s Stirling University, points to the findings of CAREX Canada, a team of specialists who examine Canadians' exposures to known and suspected carcinogens. Among CAREX's troubling findings are that 804,000 Canadians are exposed to problematic levels of diesel fumes, 297,000 to benzene, 293,000 to wood dust, 202,000 to lead and 152,000 to asbestos. Brophy is convinced that government ministries or departments responsible for labour along with the regulatory bodies aren't doing enough to defend the workers. His call for a full-scale investigation has been backed this week in an editorial in the Record newspaper. “The gold standard would be a nationwide Royal Commission ordered by the federal government. If that doesn't happen, the Ontario government should create an inquiry of its own,” it noted. “Identify the populations at risk. Review the risk factors and the latest studies. Overhaul the system for compensation. Then develop new strategies to prevent workplace-related illnesses. Do something. Now. No Canadian should have to become sick or die to make a living.”
The Record.

USA: Women meatpackers ‘treated like meat’

Workers at the world’s largest pork processing company, Smithfield Foods, say as long as lines are moving fast, supervisors who sexually harass them are given a free pass. Smithfield Foods’ 2,000-employee bacon and sausage packaging plant in Smithfield, Virginia, sits a mile down the road from the company’s stately corporate headquarters and flagship restaurant, Taste of Smithfield, a tourist-friendly establishment known for its smoked pork brioche sandwich, Virginia craft beer and “piglets” menu for kids. But the reality of life in the plant became visible in late May last year, when nine women workers sued Smithfield Foods. Several of the lawsuits charged that plant supervisors had engaged in “the most extreme acts of sexual harassment.” They alleged that, for years, supervisors brushed their genitals against them and grabbed their breasts and buttocks; promised a promotion and even a “cheap car” in exchange for sexual liaisons; and prodded the women for sexual favours. Four of the women claimed the firm’s HR department reduced their hours and three said they were fired after they reported harassment. In four of the complaints, HR allegedly took no action to address the harassment, while in one case, it took months. Five months after filing, in late October 2018, the nine women resolved their complaints with Smithfield outside of court - a route often pursued by large corporations to avoid negative publicity. No settlement amount was disclosed. Beyond sexual harassment and strict break and leave policies, the demands of meeting production quotas and keeping up the line speed have physical implications, including strain injuries requiring surgery.
In These Times.


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