The union has lost many members to this terrible disease.
This year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) on Tuesday comes at a particularly critical time for workers.
Unite the Union’s challenge has been to meet the requirements and needs of all the 20 industrial sectors Unite represents, each with their own priorities as well as measures that span several sectors.
Along with other trade unions, we’ve been instrumental in reducing the spread of COVID-19 by ensuring workers are protected. Even so, we have lost many members to this terrible disease, every one of which is an individual tragedy. Here we set out the challenges – and successes – we’re seeing right now.
Protecting health and social care workers
The failure to provide the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) across all sectors, but especially in the NHS and the care sector, is nothing short of a national scandal.
Unite paramedic members, who are working round the clock report that “huge numbers of colleagues are off sick, and there are massive differences between the levels of PPE each trust is supplying”.
The danger that our paramedics face was brought painfully home when one of Unite’s paramedics in Wales succumbed to COVID-19 last week.
The plight of members in the care sector is even worse. From the point of the lockdown beginning, concerned workers were contacting Unite describing how PPE was not available and often managers were indifferent to their concerns.
The failure to supply and distribute PPE was why Unite called on the government to appoint a minister responsible for co-ordinating provision. It belatedly agreed to do so with the appointment of Lord Deighton, who will hopefully finally ensure that sufficient PPE is available and provided to those who need it.
Ensuring social distancing
The challenge of ensuring that workers are able to socially distance at work has been absolutely massive and covers a huge number of workplaces.
In refuse collection many private sector operators have been reluctant to introduce social distancing and safety policies, with Unite having to threaten action to defend the health of our members.
Meanwhile, the challenge of keeping our construction members safe has been made far more difficult by dangerous changes to government sponsored guidance which now allows workers to be face to face for 15 minutes if no other option is available.
Unite has been clear if social distancing cannot be ensured for construction workers from the moment they leave home until when they return, sites should be closed.
Retailers and food producers have adapted to meet social distancing challenges either through agreement with the union, or because union members organising together have forced them to do so. Where they have been slow or reluctant to act they have been exposed and forced to change their practices.
Social distancing has also been a major issue for our members who work in call centres. Unite has been tackling serious problems concerning a lack of social distancing, as well as the requirement to hot desk and the hygiene issues this creates.
Bus and lorry driver safety
It is heart breaking that over 20 London bus workers have succumbed to the disease with many more left fighting for their lives. The number of bus worker deaths outside the capital is also rising.
Unite’s priority has been to keep bus workers safe. This has involved enhanced cleaning regimes, sealing the screen around the driver, making seating round the driver out of bounds and ensuring that Unite safety reps are stood down from driving to ensure that social distancing, cleaning and safety measures are enforced at all times.
Following pressure from Unite, Transport for London has closed the front door on all buses to further protect drivers. Similar action is being taken outside of London but here often the biggest challenge remains the collection of money, particularly where there is a lack of regular access to hand washing facilities.
When the pandemic began the maximum driving hours of HGV drivers were relaxed to help meet demand for food and medicines. This was a measure Unite and a number of employers did not believe was necessary. We have been ensuring the safety of HGV and other drivers – including through access to hand washing and toilet facilities – is not compromised.
No return to ‘business as usual’
What is clear is that when the pandemic ends we cannot simply return to business as usual.
Throughout this pandemic, and for the first time in a decade, the government has listened to what trade unions have to say and acted on our concerns. While there will be clear differences moving forward, government needs to recognise that unions will continue to play a vital role in ensuring safety and security for workers.
The crisis has also demonstrated that the UK’s inspection and enforcement regime is threadbare and weak, with no evidence of any decisive interventions during the pandemic. Regulators must be given the powers, the funding and the confidence to tackle employers who risk the health and safety of workers.
As workers continue to face the dreadful challenges of this pandemic the slogan of IWMD “remember the dead but fight like hell for the living” has never been more important.
Gail Cartmail and Diana Holland are assistant general secretaries of Unite the union
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