Radical Roundup: 10 stories that have got buried – Week 4 February 2021

Left Foot Forward's roundup of the progressive news you might have missed this week...

Radical Roundup

Your weekly dose of under-reported news, in no particular order… PS: Got a story tip? Email us: [email protected]

10. Agency workers used by Amazon in the UK have been left in the lurch with zero-hours contracts, hundreds of pounds in unpaid wages and shifts cancelled at the last minute, according to an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The Bureau heard from 16 Amazon warehouse workers and analysed online reviews and comments of nearly 200 others. Many said they struggled to pay bills and fell into debt because the agencies they were employed by had failed to pay their wages correctly or on time. One described trying to get the wages she was owed as “a nightmare”.

Workers from both of Amazon’s main employment agencies – PMP Recruitment and Adecco – described how they tried in vain for weeks or even months to contact their agency so their concerns would be addressed.

Thousands of jobs offered by Adecco were on zero-hour contracts, while PMP Recruitment offered “minimum-hours” contracts, which despite the name did not guarantee weekly or monthly hours (PMP denies this claim). This is in breach of Amazon’s stated policies to not use zero-hours contracts and guarantee pay for no less than 20-hours of work per week.  

An analysis by the Bureau found that in many places people had little choice but to take these jobs. In West Lothian 58% of all job ads were for Amazon, while in places such as Aberdeenshire and Neath Port Talbot, warehouse jobs at Amazon made up over a third of all vacancies in the lead up to Christmas.

Andy McDonald, the shadow secretary of state for employment rights, said the Bureau’s findings revealed that “the Government is presiding over a return to Dickensian working conditions which leave workers with no idea what hours they will work or how they will pay their bills.”

9. The latest round of strikes by British Gas workers ended on Tuesday, after the company refused to take fire and rehire off the table.

Around 7,000 British Gas engineers downed tools for four days from last Friday, over the company’s plan to sack them all and rehire them on worse terms and conditions. 

These are strike days 19 to 22 of the ongoing dispute. A four-day strike was suspended last weekend to allow talks between GMB and British Gas to take place at ACAS.

GMB says the talks require the company to drop its fire and rehire plan if a deal is to be possible.

A further eight days of industrial action, in two lots of four-day strikes, are planned until March 1st.

Justin Bowden, GMB National Secretary, said: “GMB entered into these ACAS brokered talks in good faith, but a deal is only possible if the company takes its fire and rehire plan off the table.”

After 18 days of strikes, more than 210,000 homes are in a backlog for repairs and 250,000 planned annual service visits have been axed, the union claimed.

8. Campaigners used quasi-religious and mythological themes to create a ‘Brexit religion’ with the National Health Service (NHS) at its heart – persuading people to support Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, according to a new study.

The Leave campaign’s promise to ‘take back control’ used the NHS as the country’s Holy Grail that could be rescued from malign European forces that threatened Britain’s unique historical place in the world.

Researchers at the Universities of Birmingham and Warwick have published their findings in Social Policy and Society, identifying three core themes within the ‘religion’, namely that the British ‘people’ had a unique role to play in global affairs, the sanctity of this special status was threatened by elites and migrants, and that the EU Referendum gave voice to the sacred ‘will of the people’.

These themes were supported by claims that EU membership was exacerbating a crisis in health and social care – a myth encapsulated by the so-called ‘Brexit bus’ campaign, which suggested that leaving the EU would free up £350 million a week to invest in the NHS.

Co-author Dr. Peter Kerr, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson described the NHS as ‘the closest thing English people have to a religion’ – placing it at the heart of the Brexit narrative was a shrewd political calculation.

“Framing the NHS as the Holy Grail to be rescued from the threat of the EU superstate and an influx of foreign migrants – symbolised by the ‘Brexit Bus’ – neatly cut into a variety of beliefs and emotions about Britain’s place in the world and its membership of the EU.”

7. More than 650 Rolls-Royce jobs have been safeguarded from compulsory redundancies for at least five years after Unite secured agreements at the company’s plants in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire and Ansty, Coventry.

The signing of the memorandum of understandings (MoU) for the Inchinnan and Ansty sites, comes just weeks after Unite struck a ground-breaking deal with Rolls-Royce’s management to secure the future of the company’s Barnoldswick operations, saving an additional 350 jobs.

As well as safeguarding jobs, the MoUs for Inchinnan and Ansty state that Unite and Rolls-Royce will work together to bring new work to the sites, including that related to addressing climate change and developing green technologies.

Around 575 people are employed at Rolls-Royce’s Inchinnan site, which produces turbine blades and aerofoils, while more than 85 are employed at Ansty, where engine fan cases are made.

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “The agreements safeguarding more than 650 jobs in Inchinnan and Ansty are testament to the hard work of our members at both sites who, alongside our fantastic team of shop stewards and officers, were determined to secure a bright future for their workplaces and communities.

6. The TUC has intervened in a row over the appointment of the new secretary-general of the influential Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), urging foreign secretary Dominic Raab not to support the Australian candidate Mathias Cormann, the former Australian finance minister who is being touted to take the job.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said she was concerned that the UK was preparing to vote for Cormann, who has a reputation for defending Australia’s mining interests, and on opposing urgent action on climate change and for his support for the anti-union agenda in Australia. She said Cormann’s appointment would set back the fight against poverty and the climate crisis. Ms O’Grady also said it was time for a woman to take on the leadership of the organisation.

There are four candidates still in the race to lead the OECD and including the former EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström and the Greek academic and former education minister Anna Diamantopoulou who has a track record of fighting poverty and tackling the climate emergency.

Whilst the UK has not formally declared its preference the TUC said there was speculation that Raab was lining up to support Cormann.

5. NHS campaigning group Health Campaigns Together are holding an online privatisation conference on Thursday night. Working in partnership with Keep Our NHS Public, unions and others, the conference will include an update on Labour’s position to be given by shadow health secretary, Jonathon Ashworth.

The conference, which is free and open to all, will aim to help inform the public and campaigners alike about privatisation, especially in light of its ‘acceleration’ during this pandemic.

Dr John Lister, author and editor of Health Campaigns Together said: “With around 1,000 attendees already registered, it’s clear that our conference is going to be the biggest ever event challenging the privatisation of our NHS – and the scale of response shows how many people see the importance of the issue.

“Tens of billions that could have been invested in public health and NHS facilities have instead been squandered on ineffective private contractors, many of them run by cronies or donors of the government. Billions more that could re-equip NHS hospitals to deal with record waiting lists are now promised to private hospitals – while thousands of NHS beds lay closed or empty. We hope this conference will mark the start of a renewed, concerted and broad counter-offensive against privatisation and the development of new ideas and campaigns to grab the public imagination and pile political heat on the government.”

4. The Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Tory MP William Wragg MP, has criticised the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, for not doing more to ensure that policy decisions on Covid-19 were open to scrutiny. 

The Minister for the Cabinet Office had been invited, alongside the Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock, to give evidence to the Committee as part of its inquiry Data Transparency and Accountability: Covid-19.

Ministers from their respective departments were sent in their place, however they were unable to answer all questions put to them as some of the issues were outside their remit or they were not involved in the decision making processes. Michael Gove declined a further invitation to give evidence and the correspondence is published on the Committee’s website.

William Wragg MP said:  “We are extremely disappointed that we have been unable to take evidence from the Ministers responsible for key questions on how data has been used to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Secretaries of State and Government Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the decisions they make. When a Select Committee holds an inquiry those responsible for the policy must make themselves available to answer for their decisions. On that measure, in this instance the Government has fallen short.

“I would urge the Government to reconsider how it engages with Parliamentary scrutiny and not shy away from Select Committees in the future. The public will come to its own judgement on how it performs on this measure.”

3. Renters groups have challenged government claims that an ‘eviction ban’ has been extended until March 31st.

A statement to supporters from the London Renters Union this week stated: “In its announcement last week, the government said there’s now an “eviction ban” until March 31. In reality, they’ve already given the green light to landlords and bailiffs to evict tens of thousands of people. The old rules said that you could only be evicted if you were in 9+ months rent debt and that debt was from before the start of the pandemic. A new loophole the government has tried to keep quiet means that people who are in six months of rent arrears from any time can now be evicted. 

“15% of London’s renters are in debt to their landlord – that’s nearly 300,000 people. People of colour, migrants, disabled people and zero hour workers are all more likely to be in rent debt.

“The National Residential Landlords Association is asking the government to simply pay off the debt of any renter – a blanket bailout that could see millions of pounds handed over to wealthy landlords. While millions face unemployment because the businesses they work for are going under, landlords are asking for unlimited financial support but offering nothing in return. Rather than line the pockets of those who are already rich, the government should prioritise writing off rent debt, remove the loopholes in the eviction ban and keeping its promise to reform the rented system.” 

2. The SNP has slammed the Home Office for its “simply astonishing” cruelty and incompetence after Priti Patel suggested asylum seekers would continue to be housed in military barracks; and failed to rule out the possibility that workers from the EU could be sacked if they missed the settlement scheme deadline.

In today’s Home Affairs Committee, Stuart McDonald MP asked the Home Office what documentation it relies on when it disputes the overwhelming evidence that the military barracks being used as asylum accommodation are not fit for purpose and breach human rights. Despite that evidence and offering nothing to rebut it, the Home Secretary confirmed the dangerous military barracks would remain open and remained part of her plans for accommodating asylum seekers in future.

When asked whether care staff who fail to apply to the EU settlement scheme in time would have to be sacked the Home Office was unable to answer. The question follows research by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants revealing thousands – many of them care workers – are set to miss the deadline for the EU Settlement Scheme.

Commenting, Stuart McDonald MP said: “The indication that disused military barracks are not temporary, but part of the government’s future plans for asylum accommodation mark a truly shocking turn in UK asylum policy.”

1. Momentum has slammed Labour’s refusal to back corporation tax rises.

It follows shadow chief secretary to the Treasury MP James Murray refusing to commit to supporting raising corporation tax and applying a special Covid-19 windfall tax on Politics Live on Wednesday.

A Momentum spokesperson said:  “During the pandemic big corporations like Amazon have cashed in while working people struggle to get by. Labour should support both raising corporation tax and a special COVID-19 windfall tax for sectors that have made super profits.

“We should use the cash to fund a new future for Britain based on a green jobs boom, a massive program of social house building, and taking rail, mail and utilities back into democratic public ownership.”

LFF was the first to cover Labour’s rejection of a rise in corporation tax last year.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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