No Safety Without The Unions

Professor Keith Ewing, President of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

The government has now released its own ‘guidances’ for a return to work by stealth — cutting workers’ representation out of the picture, writes Professor Keith Ewing, President of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

Last week the gloves came off. The pretence of government consultation of unions was dropped with the vicious attack on the teachers who decline to go back to work without the assurance that it is safe for their members, their members’ families, the pupils and their families.

Their view is shared by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments and the BMA. It is also shared by the leaders of English local authorities. And more particularly, it is shared by most parents who don’t want their kids to become carriers of the disease.

But the British government is desperate for teachers in England to get back to what it regards as their proper function: childminding — so that business can get back to normal.

The episode shows two things. First, the government regards workers — and still more — their unions with contempt.

True, it was reported several weeks ago that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) had consulted with unions about easing the lock-down, and facilitating a return to work. This, however, seems designed principally to help provide re-assurance and share the responsibility associated with the return to work in the knowledge that millions of people were fearful.

But there is no indication of any joint planning, negotiation or agreement with the trade unions about the pre-conditions of the return, or of the necessary infrastructure being settled before any return to work takes place.

On the contrary, it appears that the unions were given 12 hours’ notice of the advice the government intended to publish, their recommendations largely ignored in the eight heavily criticised guidance subsequently published on May 11.

Which brings us to the second point. This relates to the substance of the guidance, which states that:

“This guidance does not supersede any legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment or equalities and it is important that as a business or employer you continue to comply with your existing obligations …”

Yet each guide (there are eight) fails to set out what the existing obligations are — and each fails to point out that it is not merely “important” to comply, but that it is a criminal offence not to.

In Britain there are 5,613,000 micro businesses (96 per cent of all businesses) that employ fewer than nine workers. They will not have health and safety officers and cannot be expected to know their statutory duties.

It would have been easy to set out (on a single page) the duty of every employer to provide PPE; keep the workplace and workstations safe; make a proper risk assessment; and not to penalise or dismiss a worker for refusing to work where he or she has a reasonable belief of imminent danger of infection.

That said, the guides set out sensible steps to minimise risk. The employer is advised to do its best to minimise the risk of infection. That is obviously sensible. The problem comes at the point where the employer considers it has done what is reasonable and that it would be too much trouble or expense to do more, even though risk remains. This is simply not good enough.

Employers need objective standards to determine whether they have sufficiently minimised risk. The words of the regulations, approved by Parliament, set out what is necessary to be done and these obligations should be stated in government guidance.

In the absence of a clear statement of the law workers face the cruel dilemma of either risking their (and their families) health or earning a living.

In relation to PPE the guides say: “Workplaces should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against Covid-19 outside clinical settings or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19.”

This can’t be right. The Provision of Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 says: “Every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective.”

So, if other steps are insufficient to eliminate the risk of infection, then PPE must be provided. What justification can there be for denying gloves to delivery drivers handling packages, or visors and face masks to those who have to work in confined spaces with other people (like shops, offices or schools), or have to mingle with other people (like ticket inspectors, such as the tragic case of Belly Mujinga)?

Last week, the ONS published figures showing an increased risk of death from Covid-19 among “lower-skilled” occupations. So four-and-a-half times as many security guards died from coronavirus as in the rest of the population, taxi drivers, chauffeurs and chefs were three-and-a-half times more likely to die, bus and coach drivers over two-and-a-half times more likely to die, and sales and retail assistants twice as likely to die from it.

Far from their employers being advised not to provide PPE specifically against the risk to such workers, they should be advised that they are under a statutory duty to provide it. The point here is that our long established health and safety laws are being ignored.

Trade unions fought for statutory protection for at least 150 years. These laws are being trashed. So too are common-law obligations highlighted in legal advice to the NASUWT published last week.

Also last week, the HSE published its own guidance to a return to work. Although the HSE is an “arm’s length” public body, its guidance on how to operate a “Covid-secure” business would be risible were the matter not so grave.

The documents fail to mention any of the relevant regulations beyond advising employers to carry out a risk assessment. For the rest it merely advises that the employer “should think about” various matters of safety.

As workers were being pressured back to work last week with inadequate guarantees about their safety, Brexit negotiations were breaking down because the government was not prepared to accept “a level playing field” with the EU on environmental and labour rights.

The Covid-19 crisis is providing us with an alarming insight of the kind of employment protection we are likely to see if the post-Brexit structures are to be created by a Tory administration.

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When is it right to stop the job?

We know the law is no friend of workers, so how can we ensure health and safety

in the workplace amid desperate times for many? Carolyn Jones recommends an expert panel discussion that will help workers and their reps get clued up

“Heigh ho, heigh ho. It’s off to work we go”! According to Boris Johnson. But back in the real world, millions of people are fearful for their safety and reluctant to be herded back onto packed public transport to be delivered to unsafe and unregulated workplaces.

Media outlets would have us believe that it is militant trade unions preventing the cheery back-to-work scenario.

Yes, trade unions did resist Johnson’s snap, 12-hour back-to-work proposal, announced without consultation or accountability in his puffed-up address to the nation.

And trade unions continue to play a leading role in highlighting the dangers and the inadequacies of protections available to workers in too many of Britain’s workplaces.

And so they should. As recent reports from the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) have shown, neither Britain’s health and safety laws nor the regulatory bodies established to monitor and enforce those laws are fit for purpose.

It is true that legislation exists to protect those at work. A glimpse at the key health and safety statutory duties — each of which are legally enforceable and carry criminal charges if neglected — suggests that the laws should be enough to protect even the most vulnerable of workers.

But it’s a mirage. Just like the line in the Heigh Ho song that claims: “It ain’t no trick to get rich quick,” the idea that legislation will protect individuals is a con.

Consider the weaknesses in the laws. Much of the legislation only covers those classified as employees.

Those classified as “workers” or self-employed, are denied the protection of much of the legislation.

Similarly, some of the laws are only enforceable in workplaces where a trade union is recognised for collective bargaining purposes, where recognised health and safety reps can demand consultation and inspection rights.

For those without the benefit of a trade union behind them, workers are left to fall back on individual enforcement actions through tribunals or appeals to the regulatory body tasked with overseeing health and safety at work, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Both are fundamentally flawed. Ignoring the fact that the employment tribunals are not currently sitting, even when they are, getting around the vague phrases of the laws is extremely difficult.

The median amount of compensation given is around £5,000 and the likelihood of getting your job back following unfair dismissal has been calculated as less than 1 per cent of all successful cases.

As for relying on the HSE, figures in a recent report for IER by Steve Tombs suggest that the likelihood of one of Johnson’s proposed “HSE’s spot checks” happening is just once in every 275 years.

The latest figures show that there has been a 35 per cent cut in the number of inspectors employed by HSE since 2010.

Speaking to the work and pensions committee in March 2020, the chair of the HSE himself described the number of inspections as “relatively small” — just 20,000 a year across 5.5 million HSE duty holders.

It is clear that following years of cuts the HSE is not in a position to provide adequate cover during this pandemic.

It’s true that the government has announced an additional £14m for the HSE, but that is a drop in the ocean when compared to the £104m cut from HSE funds since 2010.

And who will decide which sites to inspect with this new money? In 2011 the DWP declared whole sectors of the economy as “low-risk” and therefore exempt from proactive inspections.

Those low-risk sectors included some that most sane people would recognise as particularly high risk — including construction, one of the sectors the PM casually suggested should go back to work.

Little wonder that building work campaign groups are calling for construction sites to be shut down.

More could be said about the weaknesses of British laws — not least the changes introduced by the the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, 2013 which revoked the 114-year-old civil liability of employers for their workers’ health and safety — making it exceptionally difficult to gain compensation for injury or death at work.

But readers of the Morning Star will know all too well that the law is no friend of workers, despite occasional victories in the courts.

In reality, it is trade unions which offer the sword of justice in the workplace and it will be trade unions that protect the health and safety of workers as the government blunders through this pandemic.

Of course unions in Britain remain restricted by anti-trade union laws, laws that render strikes in response to immediate emergency situations unlawful by demands for ballots and notice periods.

But for the past 30 years, British laws have led more and more workers down the individual path to enforcement of rights.

How ironic it would be if individual workers now decided to walk off the job quoting statutory health and safety duties in their defence.

The law may be weak but it still engages a duty on employers and the state to prevent serious and imminent danger, not just to individual workers but also to their families and to the general public.

And, according to the HSE, a pandemic flu virus is a hazardous and dangerous substance.

We cannot allow trade unions to be cast as the wicked witch. Nor should workers accept the poison apple being offered by a reckless government playing fast and loose with the health and wellbeing of working people in return for a paltry pay packet.

The IER is supporting a free Zoom event tonight organised by the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom to discuss When Is It Right to Stop the Job? Join us tonight, Monday May 18th, from 6pm-7.30pm. Sign up at tinyurl.com/y7gmmrnb.

The speakers are John Hendy (CTUF), Dave Smith (Blacklist Support Group #shutthesites) on construction, Mick Cash (RMT) on transport sector, Steve Turner (Unite) on manufacturing sector, Shelley Asquith (TUC) campaigning on health and safety and Marie-Christine Naillod (CGT international department). The chair is Adrian Weir (CTUF).

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When Is It Right To Stop The Job. CTUF On-line event – registering now!

Places going fast! So register today at tinyurl.com/y7gmmrnb Campaign For Trade Union Freedom on-line Zoom event for trade unionists: ‘When Is It Right To Stop The Job?’ May 18th at 6.00pm to 7.30pm. See flyer for speakers.

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Aussie Unions Say Employers Using Covid19 To Attack Workers Rights

Australian unions say they face a further attack on employment and workers rights and have accused big business of using the Covid19 crisis to attack employment rights.

Using the word reform, Aussie unions say this means cuts in pay, employment conditions and  and all out attack on workers rights.

Unions have accused Australian employers of being ideologically obsessed with weakening and removing workers rights.

Unions say employers have too much power, with upto  third of them not paying any tax and are in a race to the bottom on wages and job security.

Find out more and in Australia you can sign up to their union campaign by clicking here. 

 

 

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TUC: Employment Rights After Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the underlying weakness of the UK’s employment laws and we can expect there will be demands from employers for ‘more flexibility’ or attempts to weaken the already weak employment laws. European and global trade unions are already anticipating a push by employers to role back employment rights in response to a weakened economy.

This week the TUC will be releasing a series of short interviews on Employment rights after coronavirus:

Monday, May 4thMonday, Michael Ford QC will talk about the employment law fall out from coronavirus.

Tuesday, May 5th, will see Dee Masters and Robin Allen QC of Cloisters talk about technology at work after coronavirus.

Wednesday, May 6th will feature an interview with Dr Alessio Bertolini of the Oxford Internet Institute on platform work after coronavirus.

Thursday, May 7th Professor Melanie Simms will discuss the longer-run impact on labour markets and the issues facing trade unions.

Each video will last between 10-15 minutes and will be done in interview style.

The TUC will be providing links to these interviews which will be tweeted out.

TUC Employment Rights Officer Tim Sharp

Tim Sharp, Senior Employment Rights Officer at the TUC says: “During the coronavirus pandemic unions have fought hard to protect workers jobs and incomes and to ensure their rights are respected at this difficult time. But we need to ensure that when the shutdown is lifted and more people return to work outside the home that we are alert to the tasks ahead”.

“These interviews explore the various challenges workers will face whether it is to their legal rights or the impact of new technology to put them in a better position to defend and extend their rights at work.”

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Covid-19: learning from the past for a better future

By Professor Keith Ewing and John Henry QC

From the Morning Star Special May Day edition

A massively expanded state is needed with a greater role for unions and the people themselves: Professor Keith Ewing and John Hendy QC present ‘a post-Covid-19 manifesto’

Much has been written in recent months from across the political spectrum about Lenin’s famous aphorism that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

But apart from a determination that we should not return to the past, little time has been spent reflecting on Lenin’s even more famous question: “what is to be done?”

Now is the time for answers.

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed in sombre terms the true nature of British society and is testament to the inequalities between us. As we have written before, some of us are more vulnerable to contracting the virus than others, while some are more vulnerable to serious and critical symptoms than others.

But it is not just the virus that preys on inequalities. So does the response to it, as well as the likely longer term effects.

Some are able to work conveniently from home, while others are not; and others are able to live comfortably in a period of lockdown, with secure incomes and sufficient space, including access to gardens.

But despite the government’s rescue packages, others are having to self-isolate on statutory sick pay, many have lost their jobs and 1,950,000 have registered for the mercies of universal credit since March 1st

For some, the future looks as bleak as the present, as the impact of the greatest depression for two hundred years begins to dawn.

There will be a massive job of rebuilding a broken society — neoliberalism and buccaneering free-market capitalism having totally disarmed the resilience of the state and revealed itself as no match for a global health pandemic which looks set to claim many victims in Britain and elsewhere.

In a period of just over a few weeks, we have seen the grim figure of 20,000 deaths in hospitals alone, including many healthcare workers and other essential service workers, who have sacrificed their lives in the interests of others.

This amid claims that the state has failed in its most basic duty to protect the lives of its citizens. We see a failure of politics and public administration on a scale not witnessed in modern times.

But above all what we see is the failure of an economic model as this crisis has incubated and spread: the failure of neoliberalism, free markets and global supply chains that have now conquered the globe.

This is the model that has stripped states of all resilient capacity, has proved unable to ensure the supply of even the most basic personal protection equipment for workers on the front line.

So what about the future? We are reminded of previous crises and the steps taken to address them — their causes and their consequences. As highlighted elsewhere in this special May Day edition, they included the revival of the ILO by the Declaration of Philadelphia as the second world war was coming to an end.

This is the greatest ever international statement in favour of social justice: although imitated it has never been equalled.

At its core the Declaration of Philadelphia commits to freedom of association and the “effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining,” as well as “policies in regard to wages and earnings, hours and other conditions of work calculated to ensure a just share of the fruits of progress to all.”

In other words, the value of work and its rewards ought not to be determined by the vagaries of a “labour market,” but by equity and justice.

Indefensibly, those on whom we are all most dependent are the lowest paid and the most vulnerable. Their critical role as well as their dignity and bravery reinforces the irrationality and unjustifiability of existing wage structures and the imbalance between the low and the well paid.

Above all, it reveals the interdependence of all who labour in whatever capacity and the need to “flatten” what has become an inexplicable income curve.

If we are to escape the clutches of neoliberalism and reassess our values to rebuild after the crisis, there is a need for a public-policy revolution at least as great as that we saw in 1934, until it was eclipsed by Thatcherism in the 1980s.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown the need for a greatly expanded role for the state, a need that will continue as the country faces up to the devastation left in the virus’s wake.

An enlarged role for the big state will create in turn a need for new forms of political engagement and participation: citizens have a right not just to be spoken to by government but to be in government with government.

It will also create a new role for trade unions at the highest levels of policy-development and rule-making though sector-wide bargaining and the need for permanent machinery to create a framework for such engagement .

It is now more widely understood that trade unions perform an important role in a free society as intermediate institutions between state and citizen in an open, resilient, democratic society.

We need strong trade unions with the power and authority to participate in government, to hold governments to account and to resist policies that damage the national interest. But this will be only the start, as we look to the past to build a better future.

A post-Covid-19 manifesto

1 There is a need for co-ordinated and progressive international action, as in the ILO Declaration of Philadelphia (1944).

2 EU institutions need to rediscover and recognise the principles set out in the EU Treaty, articles 2 and 3 and abandon their commitment to an “open market economy.”

3 At domestic level, radical and transformative fiscal policies must be adopted to raise taxes, in order to increase spending, in order to promote income equality and equality of wealth.

4 The state must be rebuilt as the expression of collective solidarity, not just in health, but also in employment, housing, education, transport and income maintenance.

5 Participation in government must be expanded to give trade unions a voice in public policy development, while all public services must be delivered directly by public bodies.

6 The economic constitution must be to restored to recreate an open, robust, resilient and inclusive democracy based on entitlement through strong industrial citizenship.

7 As a result, sector-wide collective bargaining should be restored, as a key lever for redistribution and the promotion of equality.

8 Steps must be taken to ensure the dignity of all workers and to end the various forms of exploitation through non-standard employment. Enough is enough.

9 We must reassess the value of work and its rewards. Wage rates should be based on service to the community not market value, with much greater state intervention.

10 Steps must be taken to disempower global corporations and to democratise companies, as an integral part of the new economic constitution.

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Unite: Remember the dead, fight for the living – International Workers’ Memorial Day

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey calls on people to ‘Remember the dead, fight for the living’ with a one minute silence at 11am on International Workers’ Memorial Day, Tuesday 28th April.

“Safety at work is a right, not a privilege. Now more than ever the safety of our people is our primary concern.”

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Spanish court orders Ryanair to reinstate 224 dismissed workers

Employees dismissed after four hubs slated for closure – Reuter’s report

Spain’s High Court has ordered Ryanair  to reinstate 224 workers collectively dismissed from four bases in the country, saying the reasons given by the airline for seeking to close the bases did not justify such a move.

The budget airline said it had instructed its lawyers to appeal the decision.

In its sentencing, the court said the budget airline must immediately reinstate the workers “in the same working conditions” and with “immediate payment of wages not received” since their contracts were terminated in January.

Ryanair dismissed the employees, who worked at bases in Tenerife, Lanzarote and Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, and Girona in mainland Spain, after announcing it planned to close the four hubs due to delays in the delivery of grounded Boeing 737 Max planes.

But the court rejected Ryanair’s arguments that the Boeing delay, Brexit, and the seasonality of the Girona base justified the dismissals.

Gustavo Silva general secretary of Spain’s USO union, one of three that sued Ryanair, welcomed the decision.

 “I hope this makes it clear to them (Ryanair) they have to comply with the law and begin to change their attitude,” he said.

The airline’s chief executive Michael O’Leary said it could see further job losses if flights remain grounded due to the coronavirus restrictions on travel beyond May.

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Firefighters to take government to court over pension ‘robbery’

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), along with three other unions (POA, PCS, and GMB), has filed court proceedings over the government’s withholding of improved pension benefits from hundreds of firefighters and hundreds of thousands of public service workers. 

The unions say that the government is in breach of a key part of the new public service pension schemes which came into force in April 2015 under the Coalition Government.

The regulations for these schemes require that if the formal valuation of the pension schemes show the cost to the government has increased or dropped beyond its own predetermined level, then the employee benefits must be reduced or improved accordingly.

The latest valuation in 2016 demonstrated that the costs of the scheme were below this predetermined level and that from April 2019, the benefits for thousands of scheme members should have been improved.

However, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, announced in January 2019 that the process of implementing these improved benefits would be “paused” until the Government digested the consequences of an earlier age discrimination case, brought by firefighter members of the pre-April 2015 schemes, which the Government had lost.

The FBU says that this delay is nothing more than a ‘dirty trick’ which seeks to pass on the cost of a number of unlawful discrimination cases, including that brought by the FBU (estimated by the government to be £4bn per annum) onto members of the new 2015 scheme.

By incorporating these extra costs the government would try and claim that the cost of the scheme had risen above pre-determined levels, thus reducing employee benefits.

The claim today, filed by the FBU and three other public service unions, intends to force the government to lift the pause and improve employee benefits in line with their own regulations.

Should the unions win the case, the legislation says that members would be eligible for a choice between contribution reductions, benefit improvements, or a mixture of both.

The outcome of the case could affect anyone who joined the pension schemes for those working in local government, civil servants, NHS, teachers, armed forces, police, or firefighters on or after 1 April 2012.

The pension schemes are valued every 4 years.

FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack

Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary, said: “Less than six months ago we beat the government in court over pensions and their unwillingness to listen to our concerns, and we are ready and willing to do it again to get our members and thousands of public service workers the improvements they are owed.

“Ministers know full well that they are in breach of the regulations which clearly state that if the cost of financing the scheme drops, then the benefits should be passed onto members.

“Refusing to accept this and pausing the process amounts to a dirty trick which now means many of those in the scheme will have had their improvements withheld for over a year – worst still is that this robbery has been carried out by millionaire ministers.

“We are pleased to have the support of our fellow unions POA, PCS, and GMB and we are determined to see justice prevail.”

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UK-US trade talks postponed indefinitely

Below is a summary of a Daily Telegraph article not widely reported on – but it is a big blow to Johnson’s hare brained plans to drive through a trade deal with the EU and the US at the same time, something unions and employers said could not be done and would be foolish. Equally the TUC and the AFL-CIO in the USA suggested that the UK would be best served by trying to reach an agreement with the EU.

Only a few weeks ago civil servants said they were looking at ‘creative ways’ of conducting the talks.

If you have an account with the Telegraph click on the link below.

UK-US trade talks postponed indefinitely as Covid-19 crisis puts speedy deal in doubt…

“Negotiations on a UK-US free trade deal have been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus crisis, raising fresh doubts about whether an agreement can be struck before Donald Trump faces re-election in November. The Telegraph understands that formal talks were due to start after years of preparation in the week beginning March 23rd, with Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, flying out to Washington DC with her top trade officials. However the plans, which would have seen around 100 politicians and negotiators discuss terms over multiple days, were cancelled along with events across all aspects of public life as lockdowns were announced due to Covid-19.” – Daily Telegraph

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