The major employers who continue to put profit above lives

Thousands of workers are being put at risk by major employers flouting the government's advice over Covid-19.

27 Mar 2020| News

Government announcements are coming thick and fast. Following the launch of the Job Retention Scheme last week – which provided 80% of wages to furloughed PAYE workers – Chancellor Rishi Sunak has since promised a similar package for self-employed workers and government funding to cover the National Insurance and pension contributions of those on PAYE.

Unions have welcomed the government’s sensible action in keeping workers afloat, and its efforts to limit the number of jobs that disappear during this crisis. But their attentions have now turned to the rich bosses putting their workers’ lives at risk to ship non-essential items such as sports clothes; and the private contractors failing to protect key workers.

Workers delivering medical supplies and handling Covid-19 samples have no protective equipment or sick pay

The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union is taking legal action against private contractor, The Doctors’ Laboratory (TDL), which they say has failed to provide adequate protective equipment to precariously employed bicycle couriers who are playing a vital role in beating the pandemic by transporting samples of the virus.

In a similar vein, Unite has called on the logistics firm UPS to ‘clean up its act’ when it comes to hygiene standards for drivers delivering vital medical supplies.

Alex Marshall, a courier for TDL and Chair of the IWGB Couriers and Logistics Branch, explained: “We are going into buildings in the epicentre of the pandemic, like UCLH and Guy’s and St Thomas Hospitals, collecting samples, and then later in the day going to other parts of the country with fewer cases or into places with vulnerable people like cancer wards and fertility clinics.”

Despite the high-risk nature of their jobs, TDL workers are not being tested for Covid-19 infection, have no protective equipment to limit their chances of catching the disease, and if they do become symptomatic they are entitled only to Statutory Sick Pay – significantly below the National Minimum Wage – as TDL has refused to provide a more generous package, thus making it unaffordable for workers to self-isolate.

“Their complete disregard for our health and safety is directly endangering the lives of NHS staff, vulnerable patients, and other parts of the country with fewer cases than London,” Marshall said.

“It seems they are more interested in profits than protecting not only their workforce, but the general public too.”

Other couriers expressed concerns that the samples they are transporting do not appear to be packaged according to Public Health England safety guidelines.

The union is calling on TDL to provide full sick pay, protective equipment, regular Covid-19 testing for at-risk workers and assurance that all parcels will be packaged according to official guidelines.

Unite warned that it had been persistently telling UPS that drivers delivering medicines are being forced to use equipment that has not been properly sanitised and are concerned that the interiors of their vehicles are not clean, but the firm has not been listening.

“Delivering vital supplies, such as medicines, falls into the key worker category and therefore UPS bosses need to listen to our serious concerns,” Unite National Officer for Road Transport and Logistics, Matt Draper, said.

“If ever there was a time for a company to ‘clean up its act’ – that time is now.”

Major companies are forcing thousands of warehouse staff to keep going in cramped, unsanitary conditions

Companies named and shamed by the unions this week for not sending non-essential workers home have included Sports Direct, Amazon, Asos and Net-a-Porter. All four firms have continued calling thousands of low-paid workers into their warehouses to sort and ship online products. Some do not even provide hand sanitiser.

It may come as no surprise that Sports Direct is playing fast and loose with the rules after boss Mike Ashley announced he would keep all of his retail stores open after the government advised this week’s lockdown. He was forced to make a quick u-turn on that statement after a public outcry, but the less public side of his operations – his warehouses – are still open.

Unite yesterday spoke out against this practice, calling on Ashley to send up to 4,000 workers at Derbyshire’s Shirebrook warehouse home on full pay, warning of yet more scandalous behaviour at the infamous site.

“We have reports of workers being threatened with no jobs if they self-isolate when they have underlying health concerns,” Unite Regional Officer, Cheryl Pidgeon, said.

“These are decent human beings who have served Sports Direct loyally in difficult conditions on low wages and many are on non-permanent contracts. They are not fodder to make mass profit at the expense of their own health and safety, and that of their family.”

Pidgeon added that the union has photographic evidence that workers are not working two metres apart, that sanitation products are not available to workers to stick to government guidelines, and that multiple people are using hand-held scanners and being closely searched by their managers – all of which risks spreading infection.

Meanwhile, GMB called out fashion retailer Net-A-Porter for refusing to shut down its operations, putting its 550 warehouse workers at risk.

“The company are quite simple putting fashion before lives,” Mary Stump, GMB Organiser said. “This is a company with a turnover of more than £700 million, yet they insist on putting the whims of customers before the safety of their workforce.”

As many as 4,000 workers are also at risk at an Asos warehouse in Grimethorpe, Barnsley, the union warned, where there are reports of no social distancing measures and both clocking-in and lunch procedures that involve large numbers of people gathering together in a small area.

Elsewhere, thousands of Amazon workers have been forced to continue working in packed warehouses without hand sanitisers, GMB reported.

Crowds of 200-300 are being asked to share equipment, water dispensers and canteen tables that are not disinfected. There have even been reports of used tissues left in the lunch area.