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




Don't rely on goodwill to keep staff safe

As the prime minister prepares to set out how the UK will start emerging from lockdown, the TUC has warned that it can’t be left to the goodwill of employers to keep workers safe. Describing draft government guidance as worrying, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “What the government is proposing amounts to little more than the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) crossing its fingers that employers will act responsibly and keep their workers and the wider community safe.” Writing in the Guardian, she noted: “Actions will be left to employers’ discretion. Risk control measures such as social distancing and handwashing should be taken ‘where possible’. There is a blank space where the proposed policies on PPE should be. Without a big shift from the government, when lockdown eases bad bosses will be able to expose their workers – and all of us – to infection without fear of consequences.” O’Grady said the TUC was proposing a new approach, one that supports good employers to get it right but is clear about the requirements of every employer, and clear about the penalties for getting it wrong. It wants an explicit requirement for a new coronavirus risk assessment in every workplace, “done in agreement with recognised unions in the workplace. Union health and safety reps are experts who have special legal rights to investigate workplace hazards. And where there isn’t yet a union, management should consult with staff.” She also said there must be extra protection for vulnerable workers, and groups known to be at higher risk, including black and ethnic minority workers, primarily because of their over representation in high risk jobs and other effects of discrimination or disadvantage. “The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities are responsible for ensuring employers keep workers safe, but they have been starved of resources,” the TUC leader said, adding: “Ministers also need to make sure staff know how to raise the alarm about unsafe workplaces. The HSE should set up one high-profile reporting phoneline and website as a single portal for all enforcement agencies. And the government needs to run a massive public information campaign setting out what employers must do, how employees can get help if they aren’t safe at work, and making clear that every worker has the right to refuse to work in situations that present a serious and imminent danger… The government needs to drop its laissez-faire approach and set out tough new measures to keep workers safe.”
The Guardian. TUC proposals on ensuring a safe return to work, 4 May 2020. TUC video on coronavirus and employment rights at work. Covid-19: How racism kills, TUC blog, 1 May 2020.
Prospect news release. CBI news release. Hazards Campaign news release. BBC News Online.

Major concerns about return to work plan

The TUC has warned the government’s draft guidelines for getting employees back to work during the coronavirus crisis will put people’s health at risk and cannot be supported in their current form. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, criticised the non-binding guidelines for letting employers decide what is safe when it comes to distance between workers, cleaning practices and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Labour threw its weight behind the TUC’s concerns. Andy McDonald, the shadow employment rights minister, criticised the fact that unions had been being given only 12 hours at the weekend to respond to the proposals. “The entire country wants the government to succeed, but this is not how to build confidence or trust,” he said. “The proposals talk about what they expect employers to ‘consider’, and say social distancing and handwashing ‘should’ happen, where possible, to help – with insufficient attention being paid to PPE. Taking the necessary steps to protect employees is not a matter of expectation or guidance, it is the law.” Both Labour and the TUC have raised their concerns in letters to Alok Sharma, the business secretary. O’Grady said unions would have “no hesitation” in telling their members that the guidelines cannot protect workers unless they were significantly strengthened – a move that could lead to many refusing requests to get back to work. The TUC letter notes: “At present, this guidance fails to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly and is an open goal to the worst of employers who want to return to business at usual – which will put their workforce at risk… We want to be able to recommend the government’s approach to safe working to our members and the wider workforce. As it stands, we cannot.” The letter said the government appeared to have “entirely disregarded” TUC suggestions about how a safer system of working could operate in practice. She added the non-binding guidance was in some cases weaker than existing legislation.
Labour Party news release and letter to Alok Sharma. The Guardian. BBC News Online. New Statesman.

Labour demands binding virus ‘national safety standard’

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has called for sanctions on employers who flout rules on keeping workers safe from coronavirus. His call came as Matt Hancock, the health secretary, refused to confirm how new guidance on social distancing at work would be enforced. Starmer said people were “really worried about going to work” and called for a consensus between the government, opposition parties, employers and trade unions on how to make workplaces safe with national standards on social distancing and handwashing. He branded the government’s draft guidance on social distancing at work “pretty vague” and called for real enforcement of a ‘national safety standard’ to help reassure people that lifting the lockdown would be safe. The health secretary has avoided saying whether there would be binding standards for employers on keeping workers safe. He told Sky News that such issues were “under discussion” between trade unions and the business department but stopped short of setting out how those employers who disobey the rules would be punished. Starmer argued that national standards would give “a degree of confidence”, telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “The point that trade unions have raised is safety at work and there was a consultation document the government put out last weekend which was pretty vague, and it needs strengthening.” He added: “That’s why one of the principles I’ve set out today is a national safety standard. I think people will want to know: if I’m going back to work, is it a safe environment, what’s being done about social distancing, what are the hand-washing facilities, if I need protective equipment am I going to get it? It’s that degree of reassurance.”
Labour Party news release. The Guardian. Good Morning Britain. Morning Star. BBC News Online.

Call for a probe into HSE’s coronavirus failure

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) appears to be ‘parroting government advice’ on coronavirus, even where it contradicts existing legally-binding rules, a top academic has warned. Phil James, a professor of employment relations at Middlesex University, accuses the watchdog of a failure of regulatory leadership on social distancing and ‘downplaying’ statutory duties of employers and aligning instead with ‘questionable’ government guidance. In a commentary for the Institute of Employment Rights (IER), which cites concerns raised by the unions representing HSE’s inspectors and specialists (Risks 944), he writes: “The advice provided by HSE is not framed in terms of ‘what employers must legally do’ and hence downplays its rooting in statutory obligations. Once again it can be seen that the HSE downplays the legal obligations of employers, as well as the issue of whether the advice provided aligns with them.” He notes HSE makes “no reference” to “the possible need to provide PPE where it is not possible to maintain social distancing, the requirement that resulting risks be risk assessed, and the need under COSHH to consider alternative methods of protecting workers before PPE is considered.” The professor concludes that as a result of the safety regulator’s behaviour during the coronavirus crisis “not only should the actions of HSE during the crisis be subjected in due course to independent evaluation but that thought needs to be given to how it can be reconstituted to become a more meaningful protector of worker health and safety.” He said the evidence of HSE’s failings adds weight to IER’s argument “that the time is right for a Royal Commission to be established to undertake a comprehensive review to examine all aspects of health, safety and wellbeing at work.” In a 4 May oral statement to parliament, work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey said HSE was “doing crucial work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Public Health England to provide guidelines for employers to adhere to once restrictions can begin to be eased.”
Coronavirus at work: Where is the regulatory leadership?, IER commentary, 6 May 2020.
HSE coronavirus webpages. DWP’s response to coronavirus, 4 May 2020. Social distancing in the workplace during coronavirus (COVID-19): sector guidance, BEIS, updated 4 May 2020.

Poor guidance may lead to work refusals

The government’s latest guidance on returning to work won’t protect people from Covid-19, and instead may lead to concerned workers refusing to return to their jobs, the GMB union has warned. John Phillips, the acting GMB general secretary, said draft government guidance issued over the weekend to unions and business groups “was thrown together in a hurry and it shows. Giving unions and employers just 12 hours to respond is not good enough and means crucial changes will not be made. We cannot endorse crucial guidance if it is incomplete.” The union leader added: “The guidance has to be clear on how safe working practice is to be enforced, As it stands, there is nothing on PPE, nothing on enforcement to ensure workplaces are safe and nothing giving workers the assurances they need to get back to their jobs  In its current form, this guidance does not adequately protect workers from Covid-19 exposure and as a result many may refuse to work to avoid putting themselves and their families at risk.” He said the government has been for weeks advising that people must maintain social distancing and abide by the lockdown. “They cannot just flick a switch, say it’s safe to work within two metres of other people without PPE and expect them to head merrily off to work. If a second wave of this pandemic is to be avoided, then at every stage of this phased return we need full risk assessments agreed with the workforce, adequate PPE for everyone who needs it and equality impact assessments to ensure that all workers are fully protected,” he said.
GMB news release. Union News.

Unite lays down conditions on work return

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has told the union’s members in the UK and Ireland there will be no return to work unless their “safety comes first.” In an open letter to the union’s membership, the union leader notes: “I want to assure you that your union is at the table with governments across the UK and Ireland, and with our sister unions, on talks over what a safe and effective back to work programme looks like. Just as they have throughout this crisis, three principles will guide us through these talks and govern the judgments your officials make on your behalf: your safety; your income; and your job security.” He said while the union was contributing fully to the back to work discussions, “we will not be driven by any desire for a media-friendly soundbite. Your safe working comes first.” He continued: “Your officers and reps will be kept informed of any developments and as soon as we can provide more information to you, we will be sure to do so. We are in the very early stages of discussion, with much progress yet to be made before your union can be confident that the plans to re-open the economy put you, your safety and your communities first.”
Unite news release.

Return of bus services must be gradual and safe

Any increase in bus services must be gradually implemented and maintaining safety and retaining confidence have to be paramount, Unite has said. The union, which represents 80,000 bus drivers, made its view known following reports that transport secretary Grant Shapps has indicated that more buses and trains would run as part of a return to work. To support its case for caution, Unite points to the deaths of 29 bus workers from Covid-19 and the large numbers of transport workers currently off sick, isolating or furloughed. It said it is aware that overcrowding on buses will need to be policed in some way but that must not involve the driver being forced to leave their cab. Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland said: “The increase in services must be underpinned by safety and maintaining the confidence of bus workers and passengers at all times. Unite is in regular discussions with the government on these issues.” She added: “It must also be recognised that a considerable number of drivers cannot currently work and that this should not result in the remaining drivers being required to undertake excessive hours, which risk their health and safety.” Holland concluded: “The safety and social distancing measures that have been put in place since the Covid-19 crisis began must apply to all buses being brought back into service. The government should remember and fully utilise taxis in the return to work. Purpose-built hackney carriages are designed for social distancing and they should play a full role in helping workers to return to work.”
Unite news release. BBC News Online.

This is not the time to run more trains

Britain's three rail unions - ASLEF, RMT and TSSA - have written to prime minister Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, saying this is not the time to lift the lockdown and run more trains. The joint letter - signed by Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF; Mick Cash, general secretary of RMT; and Manuel Cortes, general secretary of TSSA - says it is 'completely unacceptable' to put the lives of passengers and rail staff at risk. The unions said they have worked throughout this coronavirus crisis to ensure key workers are able to get to work and essential medical supplies and food are moved around the country. But they warn company profits must not come before people's lives and the lockdown should not be lifted until it safe to do so. The joint letter calls “on the government and operators to work with us in establishing where there is a real demand to increase services and where that demand exists, how it can be delivered safely. There will have to be an industry-wide agreement with the unions that any increase in services does not increase danger and risk of virus transmission for our members, passengers or our communities.” It adds: “Seeking a blanket increase in services as part of a symbolic and premature drive to apparent normality, at the potential risk of countless lives, is completely unacceptable to us.”
ASLEF news release. RMT news release. TSSA news release.

Unions call for ‘significant caution’ on school reopening

The general secretaries of 10 teacher trade unions across the UK and Ireland have written to the education ministers in all five jurisdictions urging “significant caution in any consideration of reopening schools.” The letter, sent by the British Irish Group of Teacher Unions (BIGTU) - which includes UK teaching unions NASUWT, NEU and UCU - on behalf of almost one million teachers and education staff, warns of the “very real risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the virus by a premature opening of schools”. It notes: “We wish to urge significant caution in any consideration of reopening schools”. The letter calls for the establishment of sufficient capacity to “test trace and isolate”  the infection as a prerequisite for school reopening, alongside “significant operational changes [being] in place to ensure effective social distancing, strong hygiene routines linked to thorough cleansing practices, appropriate PPE [being] available where required, and ongoing risk assessments in place to monitor operations.” The letter to ministers notes “that reopening schools before such a regime is in place, would be catastrophic to the rate of infection.”
NASUWT news release. NEU news release. Union News. Morning Star. Daily Mail.
Education International news release on US union conditions on school reopening.

Snap teacher survey confirms ‘significant concerns’

A snapshot survey of over 2,000 school staff shows significant concerns about effectiveness of present social-distancing measures in schools, the teaching union NEU has found. In a survey conducted on the weekend of 2-3 May, 2,560 mainstream school staff in England were asked about the management of the Covid-19 crisis. The NEU’s findings showed almost one-third (30 per cent) of educators have self-isolated since March. And almost a quarter (23 per cent) of staff are currently shielding to protect themselves or a member of their household, owing to pre-existing medical conditions or pregnancy. Just 1.5 per cent of those surveyed have been tested for coronavirus. Of the 1,931 respondents regularly attending work in their school, just 11 per cent said their school was conducting a temperature check for staff and pupils. Around a quarter (22 per cent) of these respondents said their school did not have sufficient soap and/or hand sanitiser. The same proportion said there was no routine hand washing at their school. Almost two-thirds (61 per cent) of respondents said they were ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about the social distancing measures in their school for pupils. This is in the context of just 2 per cent of pupils attending school, according to national statistics. Half (50 per cent) of respondents expressed concern and one in five said there were ‘very concerned’ by the adequacy of social distancing for staff. NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “There should be no mad rush to re-open schools. It must be done with great care, and alongside a profession who feel confident about safety measures being adequate and fit for purpose. Parents also agree with us – they have shown immense patience in recent weeks, for which all school staff are grateful.” He added: “Safety must come first. We need to see evidence of a sustained downward trend in cases, a national plan for social distancing and PPE, comprehensive access to testing for staff and pupils and a whole school strategy for when cases emerge before plans can be made to open schools on a wider basis than at present.”
NEU news release.

Self-isolating workers shouldn’t be punished

The government must do more to protect key workers threatened with dismissal or put on unpaid leave if they’re off work self-isolating because of vulnerable relatives, public sector union UNISON said.  It says anxious staff have contacted the union with ‘heartbreaking’ stories, terrified that if forced to go into work, they might take the virus home – with potentially devastating consequences. Local government and NHS employers have put agreements in place to protect the income of any staff off work because of the health of family members. But some employers – including councils and schools – are instead using Public Health England (PHE) guidance to compel frightened staff to go into work, UNISON said. The PHE guidance states that staff with shielding or clinically vulnerable family members can still go to work, so long as they observe social distancing both at their workplace and home. But many workers have jobs where social distancing isn’t possible – such as in schools or care homes – or live in houses or flats that are simply too small to make this a practical option, the union said. In a letter to health secretary Matt Hancock, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis asked the government to extend the furlough scheme beyond private companies. The letter also asks that employees off work because they’re protecting vulnerable loved ones be treated the same as those in self-isolation and therefore eligible for statutory or occupational sick pay and leave. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis commented: “Employers putting their staff under pressure need to stop hiding behind public health guidance and use more common sense. Leaving staff with no income when there are other options to pursue is simply wrong. UNISON has put forward simple solutions that we hope ministers will take on board before more livelihoods and, potentially, lives are lost.”
UNISON news release, including full text of the letter to the health secretary.

Give staff safety kit and save lives in care homes

UNISON has said it is not too late to save lives in care homes, but the government and employers must ensure care home staff are provided with essential safety kit. Responding to figures published on 5 May by the Office for National Statistics showing care home deaths linked to coronavirus have increased by more than 2,500 in a week, UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Each of these deaths is a tragedy for the families who have lost a loved one.” She added: “It’s not too late to save lives. The rate of infection can be reduced if care workers have proper access to protective kit. This would help stop the virus spreading between residents or being brought in from outside. But this can only happen if the government and employers ensure workers get the personal protective equipment they need. Testing also needs to be rolled out rapidly.”
UNISON news release and petition demanding the government step up and deliver on its promises around PPE and do much more to protect care staff and elderly people.

Keeping food supply and food workers safe

The unions Unite, Usdaw, BFAWU and GMB and the industry body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) have joined together for the first time to commend the food and drink manufacturing workforce helping keep the nation fed. In a joint statement, the unions and the FDF highlight the critical importance of working together at this ‘exceptionally demanding’ time to ensure the sector’s workforce is safe, protected and respected. Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, employing 430,000 people. The statement highlights the good practice underway in many workplaces, including social distancing and hygiene standards. Unite national officers for food, drink and agriculture, Joe Clarke and Bev Clarkson, noted: “Unite the union are proud of the cooperative approach that has been established with trade unions working jointly with FDF to ensure the health and safety and good practice within the sector to support our food workers in feeding the nation.” Usdaw national officer David Gill said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of these key workers feeding our nation is of paramount importance to Usdaw and the FDF during this unprecedented time.” BFAWU general secretary Sarah Woolley said: “We welcome the opportunity at the BFAWU to work together with the FDF and other trade unions across our sector to ensure that our members remain safe and healthy and their workplaces survive the economic impact of COVID 19.” GMB national officer Eamon O'Hearn said: “GMB hopes this crisis can be the catalyst for further joint working to raise standards across the entire industry, so that essential workers in both the public and private sector are recognised for the contribution they make to our communities.” And FDF chief executive, Ian Wright CBE, said: “Partnership between employers and unions has been crucial to continuing production over the last eight weeks.”
Unite news release and full joint statement by the FDF, Unite, Usdaw, BFAWU and GMB.

The Range refuses to respond to safety concerns

Shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw has expressed deep disappointment that The Range continues to ignore staff complaints about a lack of social distancing in store. The union said the national home and leisure retail chain has so far failed to respond to the union’s offer to work together to protect staff. Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis: “A number of Usdaw members employed by The Range have contacted the union concerned about staff safety. I wrote to the company seeking a meeting to explore what additional preventative measures can be put in place to protect staff. To date I have not received a reply and I urge management to contact me as a matter of urgency to resolve the concerns of their staff.” He added: “Usdaw and the British Retail Consortium have been working to develop advice and guidance for the non-food retail sector on what effective safe distancing in the shops might look like. As we prepare for non-food retail to reopen, only when expert public health advice agrees and the government eases lockdown restrictions, we need to be ready and make sure that the proper preparations and measures are put in place. We urge all high street retailers, not to follow the example of The Range, but to study the joint advice and open a dialogue with Usdaw and the BRC on putting in place plans for adequate social distancing measures in their stores.”
Usdaw news release. Social Distancing - BRC-USDAW Recommended implementation practices for Non-Food Retail Stores: A guide for retailers on how to implement Government advice – Version 1, 24 April 2020

Housing association threatens concerned workers

The union GMB has criticised Vivid Housing for threatening workers with disciplinary action after they raised concerns about social distancing. Trades people working for Vivid - a housing association covering Portsmouth, Eastleigh, Aldershot and Basingstoke – have been told to carry on with servicing and other jobs, despite the national electrical contracting body NICEIC confirming the work could be placed on hold. Instead, employees have been forced to use makeshift toilets in their vans as there are no welfare facilities available. GMB has now raised its concerns with the Health and Safety Executive, the workplace safety regulator. Employees have told the union that management won’t reply to operatives’ concerns via email. GMB said this has led to several employees exercising their right to withdraw themselves from what they consider to be dangerous working conditions. However, those acting to protect their health and safety have now been threatened with disciplinary proceedings. GMB regional organiser Adrian Baker said: “Vivid has chosen to flex their disciplinary powers over their employees when simple risk assessments and words of advice and support could be used.” He questioned why Vivid is “pushing ahead with unnecessary works and placing both them and residents at potential risk,” adding: “GMB is in the process of writing to all members giving a specific risk assessment and Covid-19 concern log, so that all necessary detail can be held, should the worst-case scenario arise as a result of Vivid’s practices.”
GMB news release.

G4S hospital workers can’t afford to self-isolate

G4S hospital workers in Croydon say they cannot self-isolate if they show Covid-19 symptoms because they won’t be able to survive on £94 a week statutory sick pay.  Private provider G4S holds the cleaning and portering contract in Croydon University Hospital, where the union GMB says its members feel under huge pressure to come into work even when unwell, because they cannot get by on statutory sick pay alone. The union added that G4S workers at the hospital have spent weeks trying to get minimum personal protective equipment. GMB regional organiser Helen O’Connor, said: “I am flabbergasted Croydon Hospital workers are having to choose between going into work with Covid-19 or fall into destitution in the middle of a deadly worldwide pandemic. Croydon is now one of the London boroughs with the highest rates of coronavirus infection.” She added: “When the government is paying people up to £2,500 a month to stay at home, it is astounding our members doing essential jobs in the hospital are paid a fraction of that for putting their lives in danger. Seeing their low wages reduced to almost nothing when following clear government guidelines to avoid spreading the virus is scandalous.” The union officer added: “This exploitative employer is putting its own profits before the wellbeing of the hospital workforce and the patients. The appalling practice of not paying full occupational sick pay to hospital workers must be exposed and ended for good. GMB urges Croydon University Hospital to take this contract back in house to protect the workforce, its patients and the public.”
GMB news release.

RMT calls on London Mayor to meet cleaners

Tube union RMT has called on London mayor Sadiq Khan to discuss with Tube cleaners their coronavirus and employment concerns. The call came after a new survey revealed a majority of cleaners believe their employer, cleaning contractor ABM, is putting profit before safety during the coronavirus crisis. In a 5 May letter to the mayor, the union points to what it calls the ‘double-speak’ being employed around cleaners. Sadiq Khan told the London Assembly last week that ABM’s staff on the underground “are doing an amazing job in these extraordinarily difficult times and I thank each and every one of them for their commitment and service to our city,” but RMT pointed to the contrast between this praise and the treatment of cleaners on the ground. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The hypocrisy towards Tube cleaners is breathtaking. On the one hand they are told by the mayor and others they are doing an amazing job and they’re vital to the fight against coronavirus, then in the same breath they’re told you can’t have all the same basic conditions of employment as other Tube staff, not even free Tube travel.” He added: “Grand public statements are worthless unless there’s a change in the way these cleaners are treated. I know Sadiq Khan gets this because he had himself photographed with Underground cleaners employed by ABM as part of TfL’s response to the coronavirus. I’ve written to him today calling on him to reverse this shameful decision not to give cleaners free travel and arrange a meeting with our cleaning members so he can hear from them directly.”
RMT news release.

Evidence grows of unacceptable risks in call centres

An ongoing study of the high-risk work practices commonplace in call centres had provided new evidence of the extent of the Covid-19 problem (Risks 945). Nearly 3,000 respondents have now written almost 200,000 words of testimony on the devastating impact of Covid-19, in responses to the union-backed Strathclyde University online survey. One commented: “Call centres are like petri dishes and it is very easy for something to be passed around, especially during a pandemic.” Over 80 per cent of respondents believe it ‘is likely that that will catch Covid-19’ with over 90 per cent agreeing with the statement, ‘I am worried I will give Covid-19 to family or friends’. STUC general secretary designate, Rozanne Foyer, whose organisation has backed the research, said: “Many call centre workers are key workers and have been undervalued in terms of the work they do and the reward they receive. This is reflected in the way many are being treated during this crisis when it comes to health and safety.” She added: “The survey is ongoing. We urge call centre workers to respond to this so that we can build the fullest possible picture of what needs to be done. It is vital that workers join a union and that employers open up their doors to union organisers and health and safety reps, so that we can being to get this situation sorted.”
STUC news release and survey.


Fall in university staff wellbeing a ‘wake-up call’

The number of university staff being referred to occupational health and counselling has shot up, a new report has found. The report, from the Higher Education Policy Institute, shows a drop in staff wellbeing at all universities that provided data, with all institutions showing increases in staff accessing counselling and occupational health services. From 2016 to 2018, there was an increase of 16 per cent in counselling at the 14 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained. Over the same period, there was a rise of 19 per cent in occupational health referrals at the 16 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained. From 2009/10 to the end of 2017/18, at the five universities reporting complete data, there was a rise of 172 per cent in staff access to counselling. Responding to the report, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “These figures must act as a wake-up call. Universities need to understand this is a real problem that must be dealt with, not excused or underplayed. Staff constantly go above and beyond, such is their commitment to their work and their students, and we have seen that again in their magnificent response to the Covid-19 crisis. But enough is enough.” She added: “As this report makes clear, stress, and its causes, are deep underlying problems that universities have failed to get to grips with. These issues were at the heart of our recent industrial action, have not gone away and must be an urgent priority for universities. It is time for universities to look beyond the short-term and work with us to properly deal with the increased workloads and stress levels that blight higher education.”
UCU news release. HEPI news release and report.

Law Commission backs unions on tribunal reforms

Employees need longer to lodge claims, compensation limits should be raised and workers who haven’t employee status should have access to employment tribunals, according to a Law Commission report. The TUC says the recommendations could pave the way for ‘much-needed’ labour rights reforms. It said new Commission report backed a number of important TUC policies. The Commission proposed a uniform six-month time limit for bringing all types of employment tribunal claims. The current three-month time limit for many employment tribunal claims is insufficient for most people to respond to something that is likely to have given them considerable stress, the TUC has argued. Among other changes, the Law Commission has proposed giving employment tribunals the power to award damages in breach of contract claims of up to £100,000, up from £25,000. The TUC said this low level led to many claimants bringing cases in both the civil courts, where pay-outs can be higher, and the tribunal. In a reversal of its previous position, the Commission has concluded that tribunals should have the jurisdiction to hear complaints by employees that they are working hours in excess of the maximum limits. The TUC had pointed out that currently rights relating to the 48-hour week, the night work limit and the entitlement to a health check for night workers can only be enforced via an enforcement agency, the Health and Safety Executive. But TUC notes it is not an issue that enforcement agencies enforce proactively. “We noted, in evidence cited by the Law Commission in its report, that local authorities, who enforce the rules in retail, offices and gymnasiums, don’t realise that enforcement is their responsibility,” it said in a blog posting. Workers victimised for raising health and safety concerns also have to take their cases to a tribunal.
TUC blog. Law Commission news release.

Minute’s silence for fallen firefighters

Fire stations across the UK and internationally fell silent at noon on 4 May, Firefighters’ Memorial Day. The event is organised jointly by the UK Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the Firefighters Memorial Trust (FMT). Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, placed a wreath at the National Firefighters’ Memorial at St Pauls, London, in lieu of any larger ceremony during the pandemic. He was joined by Sarah Mullallay, Bishop of London and Mia Hilborn, London Fire Brigade chaplain, on behalf of the Firefighters’ Memorial Trust. The event was live-streamed on FBU’s social media channels. Matt Wrack said: “Firefighters come into work each day to save the lives of others but, tragically, it is their own lives that can be lost in the process. We remember them this day to pay tribute, but there must also be lessons learnt from each fallen firefighter. All too often, their deaths could and should have been prevented. We reaffirm our commitment today to fight for the safety of all firefighters.” He added: “While many remain in their homes as we battle coronavirus, firefighters continue to show up to work each day, keeping their communities safe. And, as with so many national emergencies, firefighters are on the frontline of this pandemic. This year, we have lost three of our comrades whilst on-duty in the UK and countless others internationally. And we have watched in pain as firefighters in Italy and the United States have lost their lives to Covid-19. It is the sombre reality of our profession that, each day, the families of firefighters can never know for certain that their loved ones will come home that night. Today, we remember their bravery and sacrifice. In their honour, we hold this minute’s silence.”
FBU news release.


Australia: Union preconditions on return to work

As Australian states and the federal government this week started to consider relaxing the isolation measures that have been controlling the spread of Covid-19, unions have said it is essential that the major reforms be made to keep people safe as they return to work. National union federation ACTU’s conditions include “paid pandemic leave for all workers who have reason to believe that they might have contracted Covid-19.” There must also be a “legal obligation on employers to protect their workers and their customers by implementing the highest practical standards and controls for their work, such as physical distancing, to prevent workers from being infected and stop the virus from spreading,” the union body said. It called for compulsory notification to local health authorities and health and safety regulators of any cases of Covid-19 infection that may have been the result of work. Laws introducing these measures must be in place before any relaxation of isolation orders, in order to keep working people and the community at large safe from a second peak, ACTU said. ACTU secretary Sally McManus said: “Workers and the public need to be kept safe should our economy reopen. This means implementing such measures as physical distancing and ensuring workers are supported to get tested if they have symptoms, supported to stay at home if they have been in contact with someone with Covid-19 and supported to stay at home or in medical care if they contract the virus.” She added: “Creating an obligation for employers to implement the best possible methods of prevention, protection and cleaning, and also to report cases in their workplaces to state health and safety regulators are commonsense reforms which will keep working people safe and help prevent the spread of the virus.”
ACTU news release.

Canada: Union anger as outbreak meat plant reopens

The union for workers at a beef-packing plant in Alberta, Canada, that has been the site of the largest single Covid-19 outbreak in North America has expressed anger after regulators refused to back its call to stop the plant reopening. There have been over 900 cases of the virus at the Cargill plant south of Calgary, which employs 2,000 workers. One worker in her 60s died, and her husband was hospitalised with the illness. Cargill announced on 20 April it was shutting down operations for two weeks at the plant, which provides about 40 per cent of the beef processing in Canada. However, it said the plant would reopen on 4 May. Thomas Hesse with the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) Local 401 said workers are scared, and the union had tried to get a stop-work order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety. “Unfortunately, the situation has not been resolved. At this moment, we have been unable to convince any government or legal authority to have the courage to step in and ensure the plant remains closed until safety is assured.” Hesse said on the union's website. “Our lawyers are looking at new strategies.” The union held a rally on the edge of the property on 4 May as the plant reopened and handed out black face masks emblazoned with ‘Safety First’. On its website, the union told its members: “If you are healthy and have been called and cleared to return to work, you should report to your supervisor. If you don't really think it is safe to work, then don't.” The union surveyed more than 600 workers in four languages over the weekend; 85 per cent reported they are afraid to return to work, and 80 per cent said they did not want the plant to reopen. UFCW’s Hesse said: “It's ridiculous that hundreds of workers can be required to pour into the plant to kill 4,000 to 5,000 cattle a day, while if you climb on the monkey bars in your local park you're going to get a ticket.” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the decision to reopen the plant was “reckless, irresponsible and, I would say, morally repugnant.”
UFCW Local 401 news release. AFL news release and related news release. CBC News and related news story. The Globe and Mail. Times Colonist.

Europe: Biological agents law must top rate Covid-19 risks

Europe’s top trade union body ETUC has won official backing for Covid-19 to be covered by the Biological Agents Directive, but has expressed concern that European Commission officials want to put it in a lower risk category. The directive is the template for the biological agents safety laws in place across the entire European Union. But while ETUC has maintained Covid-19 is a high-level workplace risk, the Commission is disputing this. The matter may be decided in the coming days by Member State experts in the Technical Progress Committee. The Commission wants Covid-19 classified as a group three risk, defined as “one that can cause severe human disease and present a serious hazard to workers; it may present a risk of spreading to the community, but there is usually effective prophylaxis or treatment available”.  ETUC and its union affiliates say it should be classed in the highest group 4 category for biological agents, as “one that causes severe human disease and is a serious hazard to workers; it may present a high risk of spreading to the community; there is usually no effective prophylaxis or treatment available”. According to ETUC, “the SARS CoV2 virus meets completely the criteria for group 4. It has a high level of spreading and there is no vaccine or treatment available.” Per Hilmersson, deputy general secretary of the ETUC, commented: “Given the drastic and unprecedented measures for their citizens, rightly taken by member states to tackle Covid-19, it is hard to understand why the European Commission is insisting that the virus should not be in the highest risk category when it comes to workers.”
ETUC coronavirus news and resources.

Global: Union road map to Covid-19 safety

Over 150 workers across the world have died from Covid-19 with the confirmed death toll rising daily, the global transport workers’ federation has said. The union body says poor health and safety standards have exacerbated the risk public transport workers face. In response, ITF has produced a detailed charter of workers’ rights, with the document endorsed by workers’ health and safety groups and the top global occupational medicine network, the Collegium Ramazzini. ITF notes: “Public transport workers must be adequately protected to enable them to carry out their critical work. No worker should have to take excessive risk or die on the job.” Its charter calls for all necessary personal protective equipment, without charge and with the training in its safe use and disposal. It says working practices must minimise the risk of transmission of the disease, including social distancing, access to Covid-19 testing, strict sanitation procedures in vehicles, dormitories and all workplaces, and the right to withdraw from a work situation that presents an imminent and serious danger to their life or health, without fear of retaliation. Vulnerable, sick and self-isolating workers must have their income and jobs protected, it adds. The ITF charter also stipulates that risks, exposure patterns and resulting health impacts should be identified, with the findings communicated to union reps. Unions should also be consulted with and participate in the design of work practices, processes and all health and safety measures.
ITF news release and charter of demands and campaign video. Intelligent Transport podcast.


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