Radical Roundup: 10 stories that have got buried – Week 2, June 2021

Weetabix strikes, prison protests and trouble at the Queen's parks...Find out what got spiked this week.

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10. Unions have expressed scepticism about government plans for a new workers’ rights watchdog.

Henry Chango-Lopez, General Secretary of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) which represents precarious, migrant and gig economy workers, said state agencies previously responsible for protecting our rights at work have an extremely poor record.

In a statement, the union leader said: “The Health and Safety Executive for example only investigated 0.1 percent of the reports it received of avoidable Covid-19 transmissions arriving from poor workplace health and safety.

“Uber went all the way to the Supreme Court in a bid to deny its drivers worker status and basic rights and Addison Lee has now lost its worker status case yet neither ruling has actually been enforced so we would expect this watchdog to take immediate action against Uber, Addison Lee and the slew of other gig economy operators currently failing to meet their legal obligations on workers’ rights.”

He called for stronger protections for whistleblowers, particularly migrant and precarious workers on zero hours contracts, saying: “Unless measures are included to protect such workers from deportation and destitution they will not be safe to report illegal activity by employers and the watchdog’s ability to stamp out human trafficking will be seriously impaired.”

The watchdog can only work if it is ‘truly independent’ from government, with full powers to enforce the law, Chango-Lopez said.

9. The lavish pomp of this weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall is a sharp contrast in a county where homelessness and food bank use are soaring, making the need for a ‘levelling-up’ package more urgent than ever, the Unite union has said.

Unite said this week was a good time to make the case for UK politicians to commit to a blueprint for Cornwall’s economic renaissance, while the world’s media was focussed on the scenic Carbis Bay summit.

The union claimed that it was an ugly contrast, that while world leaders, including US president Joe Biden, quaff vintage wines and savour gourmet meals, Cornwall had 17 of the most deprived wards in the country at the start of the pandemic.

Unite called on summit host, prime minister Boris Johnson to make good on his ‘levelling up’ promise by committing to a five-year programme to revive the tourist-dependent, Covid-ravaged Cornish economy.

Unite regional officer Deborah Hopkins said: “The G7 summit in Cornwall is welcome, with the estimated £50 million that this gathering of world leaders will generate.

“However, it should not be seen as a ‘one-off’, but must be used as a springboard for Boris Johnson to announce a five-year programme to ‘level up’ the Cornish economy.

“G7 represents the richest countries in the world and Johnson should be called out by the media covering the summit about his many failings in regards to the economic ‘hit’ that Cornwall and the rest of the UK has suffered under his woeful and blundering stewardship over the last two years.”

8. The SNP has condemned the ‘cronyism’ at the core of Boris Johnson’s government, following a damning High Court ruling that the Tory government acted unlawfully when handing out lucrative Covid contracts to those with close links to senior Tory figures.

Mrs Justice O’Farrell, who issued the ruling on the Cabinet Office contract with Public First, stated today that: “The decision of 5 June 2020 to award the contract to Public First gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful.” The firm is owned by friends of Boris Johnson’s disgraced former adviser Dominic Cummings.

The Tory government has come under sustained pressure over its handling of taxpayer-funded contracts handed out to friends, party donors and contacts. SNP MP Owen Thompson has brought forward the Ministerial Interest (Emergency Powers) Bill, which would instruct Ministers to answer questions about any personal, political or financial connections they may have to a company that is awarded a government contract. Without government backing it stands no chance of passing.

Responding to the court ruling, the SNP’s Westminster Deputy leader Kirsten Oswald MP said: “The Tory government’s handling of multi-billion-pound Covid contracts has been riddled with a catalogue of cronyism.

“The High Court ruling that the Tory government acted unlawfully when awarding lucrative contracts to friends and contacts is utterly damning.

“This corrupt Tory government is stumbling from one cronyism row to the next, with this ruling just the latest in a long list of examples. The High Court only earlier this year ruled that Health Secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully after failing to properly publish details of multi-billion-pound contracts awarded during the pandemic.”

7. The GMB union, which represents thousands of energy workers in the UK, has said there is ‘no credible plan’ for achieving net zero carbon emissions before 2050.

GMB’s 103rd annual Congress is currently taking place online this year due to the ongoing pandemic. Congress ratified a report from the union’s energy committee calling for jobs to be protected in the green transition.

Gary Smith, the GMB union’s newly-elected General Secretary, said: “Climate change is real, the climate emergency is happening, but the debate over energy and environmental policy must go-hand-in-hand and over the last decade it has been mired in political and industrial failure. 

“There is a huge gulf between our climate change ambitions and delivery. We export to the rest of the world the jobs we need to support a recovery and transition to a low-carbon economy, and we give billions of pounds in subsidies for big energy to do it. That’s unjust, wrong and as a union of jobs and work we make no apologies for calling that out.”

 A Labour for a Green New Deal spokesperson told LFF: “We support rapid decarbonisation so the UK contributes its fair share to emissions reduction globally, while transforming our domestic economy. This absolutely has to include a green jobs revolution that guarantees good, well-paid, unionised jobs for all workers in carbon-intensive industries.

“We look forward to working with the GMB and other unions to refine our detailed policy proposals for a just transition, securing the Labour Party’s support for a Green New Deal, and delivering this new economy as quickly as possible.”

6. Nearly one in three disabled workers say that they’ve been treated unfairly at work during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new poll published by the TUC on Saturday.

The survey – carried out by YouGov for the TUC – reveals that many disabled people report that they experienced significant barriers in the workplace before the pandemic, and that Covid-19 has made things worse for them.

Disabled workers told the TUC that their disability or shielding status meant they were treated unfairly, and worse than other colleagues during the pandemic. For example:

  • One in 13 (eight per cent) said they were subjected to bullying and/or harassment, being ignored or excluded, singled out for criticism or being monitored excessively at work.
  • One in eight (twelve per cent) said they were concerned their disability had affected their chances of a promotion in the future.
  • One in eight (13 per cent) said they were concerned their disability had affected how their performance would be assessed by their manager.

A quarter of disabled workers (25 per cent) said they felt unsafe at work during the pandemic due to the risk of catching/spreading the virus – and this rose to nearly one in three (30 per cent) among those who worked outside their homes throughout. Of those who face additional risk to Covid-19 due to their health condition/ disability, almost half (46 per cent) have not discussed these additional risks with their employer.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Before the pandemic, disabled workers were already up against huge barriers getting into and staying in work. Covid-19 has made it even worse.

“Employers are failing disabled workers.  Many disabled and shielding workers felt unsafe at work during the pandemic. And too many disabled workers told us their boss is breaking the law by not giving them the adjustments they need.”

5. Engineers employed by Weetabix at its factories in Northamptonshire will begin strike action later this month in a dispute over the company’s plans to fire and rehire them resulting in a huge cut in pay.

The workers, who are members of Unite, the UK’s leading private sector union, voted for strike action last week in the dispute where the workers are facing pay cuts of up to £5,000 a year.

The workers, based at the company’s factories in Corby and Kettering in Northamptonshire, will begin strike action on Wednesday 23 June and then strike on the Wednesday of each week until mid-September. The strike action will inevitably cause problems in production and will lead to shortages of Weetabix and the company’s other products.

In addition to the pay cuts, the workers have severe health and safety concerns, as the company’s plans will result in very few engineers being on shift at certain times.

Weetabix is a profitable company. It is ultimately owned by US cereal giant Post Holdings Inc whose most recent accounts show it had a turnover of $5.7 billion, an operating profit of $700.80 million and $1.2 billion in cash.

Weetabix has performed very strongly since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. It returned a net turnover of $440 million, a 5.3 per cent increase, with profits of $112.3 million, an 18.5 per cent increase.

Unite regional officer Sean Kettle said: “Unite’s members have made it totally clear to Weetabix they will not allow the company to fire and rehire them and slash their pay.

“Strike action will inevitably cause serious disruption to the production of Weetabix and will lead to shortages in shops as the strike progresses.

“This strike can still be avoided if the company takes the threat to fire and rehire its workers and the prospect of huge pay cuts off the table and instead enters into sensible negotiations with Unite.”

4. Workers and students will hold a rally at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) this Saturday, in commemoration of the anniversary of the ‘SOAS Cleaners Deportation’.

On 12th June 2009, cleaners at SOAS, at that time employed through the outsourcing company ISS, were called in for an early morning staff meeting in G2 (unofficially renamed Lucas Lecture Theatre).

The meeting was reportedly a cover for a UK Border Agency raid. Nine SOAS cleaners were handcuffed in the lecture theatre and were subsequently deported by UKBA.

Activists say the deportation of the ‘SOAS 9’ was done with the ‘full knowledge and complicity’ of the SOAS management and cleaning firm.

“These workers were targeted because they had begun to organize to improve their working lives,” a spokesperson said. They called on people to “commemorate the SOAS 9 and to hold firm in our commitment to worker justice and no raids.” More details here.

3. The Royal Parks, a charity set up by the government to administer some of London’s most iconic parks owned by the Queen, is set to find itself in the High Court says trade union United Voices of the World (UVW). 

The legal claim comes after an outsourced member of cleaning staff at Regent’s Park, one of the 8 parks under the care of the charity, filed a claim in the High Court alleging the decision to contract with her employer on the basis that she would receive inferior terms and conditions to in-house staff was unlawful. 

The Royal Parks are a public body who are subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty, so must have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and to advance equality of opportunity. Royal Parks admit that they had no regard to any equality implications arising from the disparity of terms between outsourced predominantly BAME staff, and overwhelmingly White in-house staff. The claimants’ case is that in these circumstances “due regard” cannot be “no regard”.

The claim, which UVW officials have described as “groundbreaking and potentially precedent setting”, will contend that The Royal Parks have failed to give “due regard to the discriminatory effect of operating a double standard on terms and conditions between directly employed and outsourced staff”.

The latest publicly available figures filed by the charity in November 2019 reveal the charity’s in-house staff was 87.7% white while over 90% of outsourced cleaning staff were said to be BAME. It is understood the claim will look at disparities between the two, with some of the notable disparities being the enhanced annual leave received by in-house workers as well as sick pay, maternity pay and employer pension contributions. 

2. Around fifty people descended on HMP Full Sutton, East Yorkshire, in an demonstration on Saturday against alleged abuse and plans for a new ‘mega prison’.

Campaign groups are demanding an end to ‘racist violence’ against incarcerated men of colour Kevan Thakrar and Dwayne Fulgence, and an end to the 1440-bed ‘mega prison’ expansion plan, which has been opposed by many in the local community.

Speaking at the protest, Cammilla Mngaza said: “If they build a new prison, they are going to fill it up with Black and Brown people, they’re going to fill it up with Muslims, they are going to fill it up with the deprived.”
Campaign groups Sisters Uncut Leeds and Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) are also calling for the immediate transfer of Kevan Thakrar to a safer prison, following allegations of ‘racist violence’ from both prisoners and guards.

Imprisoned since 2008 under the controversial ‘joint enterprise’ law in what his family have called a ‘miscarriage of justice’, Mr Thakrar was held in ‘Supermax’ Close Supervision Centres (CSCs) – described as ‘prisons within prisons’ – for 11 years, friends say. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture has said the UK’s CSCs amount to ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’

In 2019, he was also stabbed four times in what was described as a racist attack at Full Sutton.

Plans to build a 1440-bed ‘mega prison’ at the site of HMP Full Sutton are part of the government’s plan to create more than 10,000 new prison places, which they say is central to reducing over-crowding.

1. Fifteen of the UK’s Nobel Prize-winning scientists, economists and peace activists have called on Boris Johnson to play a historic role’ in removing ‘artificial’ intellectual property barriers that are stifling Covid-19 vaccine production. 

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the Nobel laureates call for the UK to “show the values of a truly Global Britain ” and join President Biden in support for an intellectual property waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, allowing low and middle-income countries to build domestic vaccine production.

An intellectual property waiver is “an essential step to increase production”, the letter says, which must come alongside measures to ensure that pharmaceutical companies share their vaccine technology and know-how through the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool.

The UK hosts the G7 “amid an extraordinary crisis”, with highly effective vaccines largely available only to wealthy countries, laureates say. They caution that “last year, science was the main barrier to beating this disease; but today, it is inequality”.

COVAX, the multilateral effort to buy doses for low-income nations, “will not halt the spread of this virus”, the experts warn, as it only aims to vaccinate up to 30% of participating nations’ populations and is currently lagging far behind targets.

The signatories, all British citizens or residents, represent some of the most authoritative voices in medicine, chemistry, physics, economics, and humanitarianism, awarded Nobel prizes spanning five decades from 1973 to 2020.

Sir Richard Roberts, awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in medicine, said: “The scientific case for this is clear. If we allow Covid-19 to spread around the globe for years, not only will millions needlessly die, but the virus will continue to mutate into more virulent strains. That could undo all of our work – including the work of British scientists – in developing effective vaccines and will likely prolong the pandemic for years.

“We don’t have time for politicking. The intellectual property barriers to vaccine production are hindering local production of vaccines, especially in low and middle income countries, and they must be cleared away.”

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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