Unions warn of mass walkouts over government return-to-work guidelines

Crossrail workers walk out in December 2017 Image from @resistunite

Unions have warned of mass walkouts over safety unless the government improves its draft guidance for returning to work.

The government over the weekend gave unions twelve hours to respond to the proposals, which they fear do not go far enough to protect workers.

The TUC is concerned the proposed guidance is often weaker than existing legislation and includes non-binding phrases such as: “employers should consider …” rather than instructing them to take action on issues such as social distancing and the provision of PPE.

There is also a failure to require employers to publish their risk assessments, an absence of reference to enforcement mechanisms such as the HSE and a lack of guidelines for vulnerable workers.

GMB acting general secretary John Phillips said: “We desperately need to get the economy going and nobody is keener than GMB to get people back to work – but this guidance was thrown together in a hurry and it shows. Giving unions and employers just 12 hours to responds is not good enough and means crucial changes will not be made. We cannot endorse crucial guidance if it is incomplete.

“The guidance has to be clear on how safe working practice is to be enforced, As it stands, there is nothing on PPE, nothing on enforcement to ensure workplaces are safe and nothing giving workers the assurances they need to get back to their jobs. In its current form, this guidance does not adequately protect workers from Covid-19 exposure and as a result many may refuse to work to avoid putting themselves and their families at risk.

“For weeks the government has warned people this virus is dangerous and they must maintain social distancing and abide by the lockdown. They cannot just flick a switch, say it’s safe to work within two metres of other people without PPE and expect them to head merrily off to work.

“If a second wave of this pandemic is to be avoided, then at every stage of this phased return we need full risk assessments agreed with the workforce, adequate PPE for everyone who needs it and equality impact assessments to ensure that all workers are fully protected.”

 TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady yesterday wrote to Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Alok Sharma  saying: “Working people need to see that the government is genuinely committed to protecting their health and safety.

“At present, this guidance fails to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly and is an open goal to the worst of employers who want to return to business at usual with no new requirements placed on employers beyond existing health and safety law, and no government commitment to increased health and safety enforcement or public awareness of their health and safety rights.

“We believe this approach will risk the safety and wellbeing of workers as they return to work. If the guidance is not significantly strengthened, safe working will not be guaranteed, and unions will have no hesitation in saying so publicly and to our members.”

Last night and this morning, the TUC issued a series of tweets: “Unions want everyone to get back to work and start rebuilding Britain. But govt plans to ease lockdown mean bad bosses will be able to expose workers to infection without fear of consequences. We need tough new measures to keep workers safe.”

“All workers have the right to work safely. The government’s return to work coronavirus plan must give employers clear, strong and binding guidelines to keep workers safe when they return.

“There’s ‘no new’ requirements on employers to keep workers safe at work in the government’s return to work coronavirus plan. That’s an open goal for bad bosses to cut corners – putting workers and communities at risk. All workers should have the right to work safely.”

“We can’t recommend the government’s back to work coronavirus plan in its current form. When lockdown eases bad bosses will be able to expose their workers – and all of us – to infection without fear of consequences. That’s not good enough.”

“You can’t cut corners on safety. We want binding rules for employers to publish their risk assessment and action plan. We want clear guidance on the standards employers must meet to protect public safety. And we want the government to outline a tough, new approach to enforcement.”

The TUC this morning issued an updated list of demands, which you can read here.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey issued the following statement to Unite members: “You will be aware of the great media speculation surrounding our governments’ developing proposals to get the country fully back to work as we seek to take the country out of the coronavirus lockdown.

“Of course, many of you have been at work throughout this crisis, serving our nations every working day, for which we thank you. Many more of you will be on furlough. Every single one of you will be anxious, I am sure, to understand what happens next.

“I want to assure you that your union is at the table with governments across the UK and Ireland, and with our sister unions, on talks over what a safe and effective back to work programme looks like. Just as they have throughout this crisis, three principles will guide us through these talks and govern the judgements your officials make on your behalf: your safety; your income; and your job security.

“We recognise that the task before the governments is an enormous one and that the right calls have to be made to avoid further death and ill health and to avert a deep recession.  We are therefore committed to contributing fully to the back to work discussions, ensuring that ministers and employers hear your voice at the table.

“However, we will not be driven by any desire for a media-friendly soundbite. Your safe working comes first.

“Your officers and reps will be kept informed of any developments and as soon as we can provide more information to you, we will be sure to do so.

“We are in the very early stages of discussion, with much progress yet to be made before your union can be confident that the plans to re-open the economy put you, your safety and your communities first.”

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