The United Voices of the World union has accused the Ministry of Justice and the cleaning firms it contracts – OCS and PRS – of ignoring a potential outbreak of Coronavirus among workers.
Cleaners at the Whitehall department were told they were “essential” workers and had to continue attending to their duties throughout the pandemic despite the fact the offices they cleaned were “near empty”, the union told the Guardian.
Four workers fell ill with symptoms associated with Coronavirus but felt forced to continue attending work because they could not afford to live on Statutory Sick Pay of just £95.85 per week.
One member of the team was fired by text after self-isolating with severe symptoms linked to Covid-19.
The worker, who asked to be referred to as Rodrigo, told the Guardian that he had gone into work unwell but a supervisor had instructed him to go home.
“I asked about my pay and he said he would sort it, just go home,” Rodrigo told the newspaper, but instead he received a text from employer PRS telling him not to return to work.
“I didn’t get sick pay, I wasn’t paid either by PRS or OCS and they both stopped replying to my messages. I felt really sad being thrown out of work with absolutely nothing, I felt the walls closing in on me,” Rodrigo said.
Another cleaner, Emanuel Gomes, died hours after his shift ended having continued working despite showing signs that he was very unwell.
He is believed to have died due to hypertensive heart disease, and his colleagues say it was clear to everybody that he was too ill to work on the day of his death. One colleague said Gomes had such a high fever that “he didn’t know where he was”.
“Emanuel went to work feeling sick – but he knew that if he didn’t work … he would get to the end of the month and wouldn’t have enough money,” his brother Leao Gomes told the Guardian.
UVW warned the Ministry of Justice and OCS of an outbreak among cleaning staff in April, naming five workers – including Gomes – that were symptomatic. However, the Guardian has reported that no investigation was made into the workers’ illnesses.
The Ministry of Justice denies any wrongdoing and OCS says its decision to sack Rodrigo was not related to his decision to self-isolate.