Unite: Government must act immediately as construction sites face health emergency due to coronavirus crisis

Unite, the UK’s construction industry, has warned in the strongest possible terms that construction workers and their families are facing a public health emergency as the government has failed to ensure their safety at work.

Site safety

Unite believes that alongside urgent contingencies to enforce safety on sites, the government must introduce immediate measures to ensure that the self-employed (which comprises over 50 per cent of the construction industry) are covered by its wage assistance scheme, to the equivalent already announced for employees.

Health emergency

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “There is an immediate public health emergency on construction sites, due to a lack of social distancing.

“Construction workers are currently facing a stark choice arising from negligence. That means they risk their health, or face the prospect of job loss, hardship and hunger.

“By construction workers being compelled to work unprotected and travel, the lack of government safety coordination, is risking their health, the health of their families and the health of the general public.”

Social distancing

The policy of social distancing has collapsed on many construction sites with workers displaying pictures of overcrowded buses, queues to enter sites, packed canteens and workers working in close proximity. There are also major public health concerns about large number of construction workers travelling on the tube in London.

At the weekend Unite called on the government to extend its wage assistance scheme to cover the million plus workers who are currently paid via the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS); a stand alone tax scheme for the industry, where workers are considered to be self-employed but are taxed at source so easily identifiable by the HMRC.

Sub-contracting

The problems facing construction is made more complex as most major construction contractors employ few if any workers directly, with work being subcontracted and workers engaged by these sub-contractors and in some cases agencies.

The Department of Business Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has established a coronavirus taskforce, but has so far failed to include a union voice on it to speak on behalf of the workers. Unite is lobbying for a seat on this body.

All construction work needs to be tightly controlled with strict risk assessments and social distance rules applied at all times.

Urgent action needed

Gail Cartmail added: “The government must announce they will take urgent action to ensure that construction sites will be safe and if not that displaced workers will have their jobs and income protected irrespective of being directly employed or self-employed

“Contractors also have a moral duty to ensure that all the workers on their sites are safe and financially protected.

“No worker should have to make a life or death decision arising from government or contractor negligence.”

Fuel poverty action: Guarantee people’s heat and power

NO ONE SHOULD BE LEFT COLD OR IN THE DARK BECAUSE THEY CANNOT AFFORD THEIR BILLS, IN THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS OR ITS AFTERMATH.

Sign here.

It is very good news that the government and energy companies have agreed to support people “most in need” in these difficult times.   However, as things stand there is a real risk that many people will never get the help they are entitled to — and desperately need. 

For people normally out at work who are now home all the time, energy costs will go up.  Meanwhile, they may lose their main income. Already many people ration their gas and electricity tightly.  How can we afford to pay more? Older and disabled people, worst hit by the virus, are even more at risk in cold, damp homes. Already over 9,000 people a year, mostly elderly, die from fuel poverty.

The agreement made by the government and suppliers promises that disconnections will be suspended and that customers struggling to pay can contact their supplier for help. It is encouraging that this agreement has been reached. Gas, power, and heat are essential services, and should no more be cut off than our water supply. 

But the agreement doesn’t make clear if unaffordable payments will be waived, or just postponed. In these exceptionally uncertain times, who can take on more debt?  It is essential to have clarity over what exactly customers can expect. People need to know that they can use the energy they need, without racking up debt for the future. 

Moreover, the government’s agreement with suppliers makes customers responsible for negotiating with their supplier for the help they need.  How will people be able to get the support when they need it at a time when Customer Services could easily be overwhelmed?  Will we be able to cope with this process if we or our family are ill?  Or if we have problems with English or computers? Can we count on a response from suppliers that actually meets our needs?  Will we be asked for evidence of “financial distress” that we cannot provide? And will people even know that this support is available?

We urge the government and suppliers to:

  • Provide free credit to all prepayment meter users, promptly, so that they are not left in the cold while trying to negotiate with suppliers.  It’s great that the agreement mentions sending pre-loaded keys and cards — but payment for these should be reduced to what people can afford.
  • Guarantee that customers in financial distress, including those self-isolating and/or being laid off or losing customers at the present time, will also have bills reduced to what they can afford —  and not just deferred. 
  • Stop forced imposition of prepayment meters, including imposition remotely when people on smart meters fall behind on bills. Imposing prepayment will lead to more “self-disconnections” as people cannot pay.  
  • Announce a moratorium on debt repayments while so many people are in crisis. 
  • Prominently publicise the support on offer, in government bulletins and TV advertisements, making clear that people do not need to go without the heating and electricity they need. 
  • Ensure people can access this help quickly, without showing entitlement to benefits. 
  • Ensure that suppliers allocate sufficient staff, that there are clear, published guidelines, an advertised free helpline and online interaction, and a positive approach to offering support without obstacles, so that promises are borne out in practice.
  • Offer cash grants for off-grid customers who need them.
  • Restore services to anyone who has been disconnected.

‘Petrified’ Amazon workers left in ‘300 Strong Crowds’

Amazon workers are ‘petrified’ of being infected by COVID-19 after being left to work in packed warehouses, without hand sanitiser or personal protection equipment. 

People at fulfilment centres across the UK report being left in crowds of 200-300 people and having to reuse equipment multiple times with no hand sanitiser available.

Workers say water dispensers are used over and over again without being disinfected, dirty canteen tables with used tissues on them, team leaders giving feedback without staying two metres away and no sanitiser or alcohol wipes to clean equipment. 

Mick Rix, GMB National Officer, said: 

“We are so angry about this – these workers are petrified of catching and spreading COVID-19 and rightly so. 

“Amazon is blatantly disregarding the two metre social distancing rules, there are no masks, no sanitiser and with the vast amount of people working there there’s no way of keeping them from getting ill. 

“It’s impossible for Amazon workers to keep a safe distance from each other and hit their productivity targets. 

“Amazon has a duty of care – not just to its own workers but to the whole of the British public.”  

No to racist scapegoating in Covid-19 Crisis

The Covid-19 Pandemic, combined with the failure of the British Government to properly protect its population, and a major economic crash has created situation where the most abhorrent forms of racism are set to thrive.

• We stand together against the racist scapegoating of all communities in this crisis. We condemn the use of the phrase “Chinese virus” by Donald Trump and others, attacks on migrants from the far-right and violent attacks on Chinese and East Asian communities.

• Saving lives must be the priority. Anti-Chinese racism is costing lives. Instead of racism towards China we must learn from China’s experiences in fighting Covid-19. We support the urgent demands for efforts to halt the spread of the virus to be further stepped up.

NHS Workers and all key workers, including transport, shop, postal, food distribution, police, teachers and carers must be given proper protective equipment (PPE), and testing to allow them to carry out their crucial work without placing themselves and others at risk.

• Testing must be reintroduced for all displaying symptoms and all those entering the country, with quarantine measures focused on ensuring the health of those affected as well as preventing further contagion.

• We call for an immediate amnesty for all unregistered and undocumented people. Qualified doctors and nurses that are not British citizens must be enabled to join the effort to save lives. Denial of NHS care on citizenship grounds must stop, and exorbitant health surcharges abolished.

• Britain and all countries must honour their commitments under UN conventions for refugees and accept those fleeing war and persecution, with all necessary measures to protect their health and provide quarantine where necessary.

• The unsanitary detention of people in removal centres must end, and social distancing measures put in place. Practices such as signing on in overcrowded spaces must end immediately.

• Police powers to prevent gatherings of no more than two people must not disproportionately target African, Asian and Caribbean communities.

• Covid-19 measures must be sensitive to people’s faith and beliefs. No forced cremations for Muslim and Jewish communities.

• More measures must be introduced to allow the population to follow health guidelines without forcing them into destitution. Measures such as proposed by The Peoples’ Assembly Against Austerity, trade unions, opposition spokespeople and others must be introduced including guaranteed and higher rate of sick pay, the same income rights for the employed and self employed, stopping evictions, the same payment break rights for tenants and home owners and the provision of grants.

• We call for all progressive organisations, faith/community groups and trade unions to join together in a coordinated effort to oppose racist scapegoating, demand action to save lives, and campaign for those at risk of destitution during the ongoing crisis.
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Making Sense of the Coronavirus crisis

Millions of the poorest and most vulnerable will feel the greatest impact from this health crisis. The majority have no funds to self-isolate and feel pressured to go in to work where poor health and safety practices still operate. While we rely on the Government to organise our infrastructure to support us through this crisis, huge gaps in need are exposed.

As a matter of urgency People’s Assembly supporters need to make contact with affiliates, Trades Councils, Unions and local neighbourhood groups. We want to know how the crisis is impacting our communities, what the gaps in need are and to help make sense of what is happening. 

  • Use the contact details to lets us know what is happening in your area. 
  • Look out for online events organised by your local group. 

Making Sense of the Crisis

Please join us for our online event with Laura Pidcock, Lindsey German, Grace Blakeley and workers on the frontline. We will take online questions and comments.

Self-employed and zero-hour contract people to be paid statutory sick pay

At present, self employed or zero hour contracts, can not claim statutory sick pay should they become ill. This is fine, on a genuine sickness bug etc. But the outbreak of the coronavirus is spreading vastly. 

I believe during this outbreak, should people need time off work (such as Italy have done in closing schools etc) that the self employed and zero hour contract workers should be entitled to the statutory sick pay. The government should protect ALL workers as we all have bills to pay.

I am self employed, sub contracting to a company for over 4 years now, but should a 2 week break elapse due to the coronavirus then I’m pretty much stuck in the mud. We all have bills to pay but how, should this happen, I don’t know how I’d manage.

The government should be helping out alot more before its a country in chaos. 

Barnet Unison: Support NHS workers

I am calling on you to immediately take action to secure the well-being of our NHS workers.

It is unacceptable that the very workers we need to save lives are worried about whether they will be able to buy food and supplies to live.

I want you to instruct supermarkets to set up a system whereby all NHS workers can place orders at their workplace and that it will be delivered to them each week. 

Sign here.

People’s Assembly Statement on The Coronavirus Crisis

The people are ahead of the government in making serious moves to combat the spread of the coronavirus. It is clear the government were pushed by organisations already taking action to close down large events, a move we very much welcome. Where government refuses to act civil society institutions, trade unions, and ordinary citizens are taking matters into their own hands. We reject the ‘herd immunity’ theory that coronavirus can simply be left to rip through society until enough people develop immunity. Not only is there no proof this will happen with this virus, it is the most deadly and careless approach the government could take. The government should be acting on World Health Organisation guidance and learning from those countries it commends for swift and decisive action. Older and vulnerable people matter as much as everyone else. We insist the government alter course immediately and implement the following measures:

1. Close all schools, universities and colleges. Government and Local Authorities to work with schools to develop plans to get food to children who would have been entitled to free school meals.

2. Mass testing and tracing, which World Health Organisation experts have suggested is more effective in the early stages.

3. Workers should be allowed to work from home where possible. Introduce a mortgage and rent freeze for the duration of the crisis for those workers denied their full pay.

4. Extend statutory sick pay to all workers. Following successful pressure on the government to give sick pay from day one for those affected by the virus. Statutory sick pay should be uplifted to a living wage.

5. Pensioners on low-incomes, low income workers and disabled people to be eligible for one-off grants to cover food, fuel and travel costs.

6. Scrap the assessment period for Universal Credit and make payments immediately. Sanctions for benefit claimants who don’t attend appointments should be scrapped. Universal Credit payments should be topped up to account for extra costs of preparing for virus and moving to shut down.

7. Price controls to be introduced on essential medical equipment and drugs. There must be no hiking of prices on masks, ventilators, isolation units, beds, basic supplies like soap and hand towels, as well as drugs to combat bacterial complications etc.

8. Private hospitals to be put under the management of the NHS. Essential equipment owned by private companies should be pooled as part of the overall effort; private hospital beds should be treated as public.

9. Cleaners are a vital frontline, as are NHS staff. They should both be given an immediate pay boost to attract more cleaners, nurses, hospital porters and administrators. All workers should have the protective clothing necessary in line with TUC guidelines.

10. No scapegoating of Chinese people, Italians, immigrants or anyone else. An emergency programme of aid and refugee resettlement should be initiated across Europe.

11. The outbreak must not be used as a pretext for clamping down on civil liberties. Frontline public sector workers, especially health workers, should be brought in at the highest level of decision making. The trade unions should be part of the conversation with civil servants and senior NHS staff.

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