Fighting for fairness in COVID-19 crisis: workers and unions provide the sensible solution

Roz Foyer reports on what’s been happening in Scotland’s workplaces

The STUC supports the Fair Work Convention’s vision that by 2025 people in Scotland should have a world-leading working life where fair work drives success, wellbeing and prosperity for individuals, businesses, organisations and society. The Convention’s Fair Work Framework (FWF) goes on to define Fair Work through work that offers all individuals an effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect. For workers, ‘voice’ is one of the most crucial elements of the FWF and the STUC has lobbied hard to ensure the extension of collective bargaining has been recognised by Scottish Government as the most legitimate way to give workers that voice so they can effect positive change in their workplaces.

Building on the FWF, the STUC and the Scottish Government produced a joint statement on fair work expectations during the COVID-19 crisis. The statement sets out strong expectations of employers, including: strict adherence to health protection advice; paying workers while they are sick or self-isolating; supporting those with caring responsibilities; facilitating home working; providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE); undertaking continual risk assessments; and protecting contracted workers as well as core staff.

Despite this, the defining experience for too many workers during the pandemic has been a complete disregard of fair working practices. Since the beginning of March, the STUC and the Better than Zero campaign have been deluged with calls, emails and Facebook messages from workers concerned about their lives and livelihoods.

First and foremost, workers are concerned about the health and safety of themselves, their colleagues, their families, and their communities. An STUC survey of more than 2,000 workers undertaken at the beginning of the crisis revealed unparalleled levels of fear. Over half of respondents required to work didn’t feel safe and 42% said they did not have access to adequate PPE.

Health and care unions have reported outrageous health and safety breaches, including a lack of PPE, particularly in residential care homes. Frontline health and care workers have died. Among them are: Kirsty Jones, 41-year old mother of two and healthcare support worker for NHS Lanarkshire; Angie Cunningham, 60-year old great grandmother and NHS Borders nurse; Catherine Sweeney, 64-year old Dumbarton care worker; and Robert Black, 51-year old father of two and Kintyre paramedic.

Health and care workers have had to deal with the trauma that they may have infected the very people that they were caring for, through no fault of their own. This is a scandal of the highest order, for which employers and Government are responsible.

We must remember all the workers that have put themselves in harm’s way to keep earning for their families and to care for their communities. And, we rue the day that there are some who value their profits more highly than life itself. Nearly 70% of private care homes have had suspected Covid-19 cases, significantly higher than not-for-profit homes. This is a result of allowing profits to be put before people.

In other sectors, non-essential employers have continued to operate and failed to implement adequate social distancing measures. From whisky to construction, manufacturing and non-essential retail, employers have put workers lives at risk in the pursuit of profit.

Call centre workers have been forced into offices with scant regard for social distancing, crammed into lifts and made to use filthy toilets and workstations. A detailed study by Professor Phil Taylor from the University of Strathclyde, involving more than 500 call centre workers across Scotland, found three-quarters were convinced they would catch the virus and 9 in 10 feared bringing it home to infect their families. If workplaces cause this much fear, they should not be open. It is as simple as that. But guidance and rights are of scant use to low paid workers in precarious employment – it’s worker power and not words on paper that can make all the difference.

Where workers are organised collectively in a union, they have been able to fight back. Postal workers have walked off the job in protest at delivering junk mail; education and transport unions have refused to return to work until they have guarantees it is safe to do so; and health and care unions have won financial support for social care workers, ending the absurd situation where care workers are left terrified of getting coronavirus symptoms and having to self-isolate on £94 a week statutory sick pay. Each of these have been crucial victories – not simply for their own terms and conditions – but for the health of our society as a whole.

Life for Scotland’s workers has been made a little easier for those who know they can rely on their union for support and safety. STUC’s survey highlights that unionised workers feel safer, have more access to PPE, and are working in places with clear policies on dealing with the virus. The joint STUC Scottish Government statement has also played its part with many affiliates reporting that it has been a useful tool in their negotiations with employers during the crisis. During these exceptional times and periods of crisis, we need solidarity and collective power more than ever.

As well as fighting for lives, the STUC has been fighting for livelihoods. We launched the ‘Time 2 Pay Key Workers’ campaign calling for an immediate £2 an hour pay increase for all keyworkers. It is a travesty the keyworkers keeping our society running are also some of the most systematically low-paid and undervalued workers in our society.

We are also fighting for financial security for those working in large swathes of the economy that have been shut down. More than 110,000 Universal Credit claims were made in Scotland in the five weeks to 7 April 7. An estimated 750,000 in Scotland have been furloughed, representing more than a quarter of the workforce. Were it not for the union movement making the case for the furlough scheme we would have undoubtedly have seen countless more redundancies.

Yet it has not just been Government intervention that has saved jobs, workers have had to take action too. Because the furlough scheme pays the business not the workers, employees are at the mercy of employers and we know that thousands more have been laid off. Workers whose employers refused to furlough them have looked out for each other. Others who were told to sign new contracts followed the advice that Better Than Zero distributed at the start of the crisis: Don’t Sign, Delay, Organise.

Workers at the Lighthouse, a Glasgow City Council-owned venue who are employed through an agency, were told on 18 March that the building was to shut and they would only be paid scheduled shifts until 22 March. While the agency and employer played a game of ping pong with both refusing to take responsibility, workers came together through a WhatsApp group, made collective demands, went public, and won. And beauty salon staff at the PURE Spa in Silverburn, which has chains across the country, refused to accept the zero hours contracts they were told to sign, instead banding together and winning guarantees they wanted as well as full furlough. They looked out for each other like a family, with support from Better Than Zero, and they well deserve the name they earned of ‘Silverburn Suffragettes’. Now they are in the GMB union.

This experience is commonplace up and down the country. Almost half of furloughed workers work in hospitality and non-essential retail. These are two of the most low-paid, precarious, and from the point of view of employers, easily disposable sectors in our economy. Yet they have shown how to navigate a treacherous environment through a clear course – collective demands with collective demands.

Workers in oil and gas, manufacturing, construction and education have also fought and won being furloughed rather than laid off. Workers at BA are currently fighting a campaign against its plans to lay off workers before re-employing them on worse terms and conditions.

There are risks of a rise in temporary and casual work, and pressure to work faster and cheaper, in traditional gig work like food distribution, but also increasingly in sectors like care and catering. The STUC and all unions have an enormous challenge to keep up with these changes, and to make sure workers in these irregular kinds of work are supported with the best tools and tactics, and can share their own insights and organise together.

Times are more uncertain than they have ever been. One in three workers in Scotland are now out of work. Half of the respondents in the STUC survey were unsure if they would have a job to return to. Nearly two thirds were worried about their own and their family’s employment in the future.

We must also recognise that while Covid-19 affects everyone, it does not do so equally. Black and ethnic minority people are at greater risk of dying. Those living in the most deprived areas are more than twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than those in the least deprived communities. While the majority of deaths are those aged over 75, it is younger people who are most affected by the closure of large swathes of the economy. Women are more likely to suffer economically, face additional childcare responsibilities and be at greater risk of domestic abuse.

Workers on precarious contracts are at far greater risk of financial insecurity. Large numbers of workers fall through the cracks in the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. Half of people working in the creative industries have been forced to borrow money to survive.

We must address the specifics of these issues in order to organise a collective, working class response. Unionised workers are twice as likely to feel their job is safe than non-unionised workers. That is why it is so important that workers join a union and get active. But until we represent all of these groups, we will not fully represent the working class.

One of the most inspiring stories I heard during the crisis was of twenty workers at a restaurant in Glasgow City Centre. Pre-lockdown they had their hours suddenly cut to zero with no clarity on their job status or whether they would get paid for work they had already done. Their questions and emails were initially ignored, limiting their ability to access financial support. The first workers to seek clarity were then offered their jobs back, but they declined. Why? Because the offer was not extended to all.

Call it mutual protection or solidarity, this is what it means to be in a union. Once you are combined together, it is easier to join up with the others who are facing the same. Approach it together with a plan, and we will get more than we would ever get alone.

There are organising lessons in this crisis for all workers. Keeping in contact with fellow workers through WhatsApp or other messaging platforms; demanding to see risk assessments; examining company’s profits; making collective demands; exerting pressure through public criticism; and taking collective action. As the furlough scheme is wound down and the economy opens up, these simple steps will be crucial in delivering fairer work in workplaces the length and breadth of Scotland.

The crisis has shown employers will not deliver Fair Work unless they are forced to and currently the Scottish Government lacks the powers to enforce changes in employment practice. So if the Convention’s vision of Scotland being a world-leading Fair Work country by 2025 is to be met, it will depend on us to make it happen and turn these aspirations into actual change on the ground by unions educating, agitating and organising across all Scotland’s workplaces and throwing the resources of our whole movement behind that effort.

Roz Foyer is general secretary of the Scottish Trade Unions Congress (STUC)