How Trade Unions Can Fight Coronavirus and Demand #SickPayForAll

Many people’s lives are currently at risk, and in coming weeks and months the working-class will need to fight hard to demand that our bosses and our government act promptly and democratically to serve our collective interests and act to minimise the growing death toll.

As we all know, it was bad enough before coronavirus struck — with all public services including our hospitals and schools already way past breaking point — which means that if we are serious about improving the lives of the vast majority of people in Britain, and across the world, we will need to organise determinedly to lay the ground work for building a socialist alterative to capitalism.

In pursuing this vital task, trade Unions can and must play a central role in organising resistance to the dangerous ineptitude of the Tories. And so as a starting point the Trades Union Congress (TUC) — which to its eternal shame has yet to launch any form of meaningful resistance to the Tories anti-trade union laws – has at least produced a useful introductory “Covid-19: Guidance to unions” pamphlet which sets out some of the basics about Coronavirus and it how is transmission is intimately related to the fight for workplace rights.

However, as should be expected in the fast-moving reporting on the science of the coronavirus pandemic, some of the information contained within the TUC guide is slightly out-of-date, which is why earlier today the TUC updated their message by producing a useful webinar resource which can viewed on youtube here (see below).

 

In their pamphlet the TUC observe that: “Following transmission, symptoms take an average of 5 days to begin – this differs to flu viruses which tend to incubate very quickly.” Hence this is the reason why handwashing is so very important in stopping the spread of the disease which is “air-borne and contracted by breathing in viral droplets, ejected during coughing, sneezing or even breathing.” The pamphlet however notes that: The virus cannot survive on non-living objects for more than a few hours.” This information has however now been updated, and in the TUC’s webinar the trade unionist commentator highlights how more recent research shows that the virus can live on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours. A point which again illustrates why cleanliness is so vital in limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

On other issues the pamphlet remains spot on; and when it comes to the point of holding bosses to democratic scrutiny the TUC explains:

“Trade unions should ensure their employer has in place either a separate policy for dealing with COVID-19, or a general policy covering public health emergencies, major disasters or incidents. It should not be left to employers alone to decide on what is an appropriate response – unions must also be involved, as any effective policy must have the confidence of the whole workforce.”

When it comes to hygiene the TUC add:

“Many employers will plan to step up their cleaning regimes in the event of an outbreak. However, they should bear in mind that it is likely that the number of cleaning staff may be reduced as a result of illness. Damp rather than dry dusting should be carried out during a pandemic to avoid the generation of dust and it is recommended that the cleaning of surfaces be carried out using a freshly prepared solution of detergent and hot water followed, where necessary, by a chlorine based disinfectant solution.”

Unfortunately owing to cost-cutting and years of austerity many cleaning services are now privatised and workers suffer under appalling conditions with few cleaners obtaining even basic entitlements like paid sick pay. Thus, relating to this point, the TUC make it clear:

“Some workers, employed on zero hours contracts, may find they are not covered by an occupational sick pay scheme, nor Statutory Sick Pay [which is only £94 a week] if they find themselves unwell or must self-isolate. Employers should treat workers on these contracts like any other, and pay sick pay on the basis of a workers’ average hours – or, full pay in cases of isolation.”

This is a critical demand that must be raised and fought for by the entire trade union movement. All workers must suffer no loss of pay if they have to self-isolate to prevent the spread of the coronavirus! This is the same now, as it should be even if there was no such thing as the coronavirus.

Nevertheless as a launching point for building a campaign to guarantee full pay for all workers (whatever their contracts) the TUC is asking trade unionists to sign their online petition: #SickPayForAll: Guarantee decent sick pay for every worker. https://www.megaphone.org.uk/petitions/sick-pay-for-every-worker-on-day-one?source=tucwebsite

Much more needs to be done to halt the spread of the coronavirus, but what is apparent is that the only people who will fight to represent ordinary people are the working-class themselves. So now the life-saving task that lies ahead for us all is to build the strength of the trade union movement and ensure that we minimise the death toll from the coronavirus and work towards building the type of socialist society in which the needs of humans are placed before the needs of the capitalist profiteers in the billionaire-class!

 

Note

As a Unison steward at a college in Leicester, earlier today I sent the following email to my own management as a starting point to working towards ensuring that the rights of all workers’ rights are protected…

 

Email title: Proposed union meeting to discuss Risk Assessments for Covid 19

To whom it may concern (SLT and Trade Union reps)

It now seems likely that an epidemic of Covid 19 will be declared in the United Kingdom in the near future so it is critical that our institution is as prepared as possible for all eventualities. So in my capacity as the UNISON representative I would like to suggest that management call a meeting with trade union representatives to discuss our institutions risk assessment for Covid 19 and their continuity plan for closure.

Based upon health guidance that has been proposed from the World Health Organization https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/key-messages-and-actions-for-covid-19-prevention-and-control-in-schools-march-2020.pdf?sfvrsn=baf81d52_4 and from a leaflet produced by members of the Education Solidarity Network (which is organised by members of the National Education Union), at this stage UNISON would like to make the following suggestions/guidance for schools/colleges:

Risk assessments for Covid 19

We advise that schools should immediately carry out risk assessments for vulnerable staff including those with disabilities, staff who are pregnant or who are immunocompromised (such as anyone undergoing treatment for cancer, HIV etc). In the case of a suspected case in school, a risk assessment should be carried out to determine whether the school should close in order that a deep clean can take place.

Self-Isolation

Government advice is that anyone who develops a persistent cough or fever should self-isolate for a period of seven days. Where this happens, it should not be treated as sickness absence and the member of staff should continue to receive full pay. You do not need a GP certificate to cover this period of isolation. Staff who are self-isolating, may be asked to do work at home if possible.

Pre-existing medical conditions

We advise that colleagues with pre-existing medical conditions seek advice from their GP and if advised to stay off work, this should be confirmed in writing.

Covid 19

Where a member of staff does contract Covid 19 their absence should be recorded as sickness. However, their absence for this reason should not be counted as part of the trigger for sickness monitoring or review meetings.

Caring for dependents

We believe that the current arrangements for taking time off to care for a sick dependent should be relaxed to take account of the current crisis.

Agency Staff

We believe that staff who are on long-term placement with a school should continue to be paid. We will be campaigning nationally and locally to ensure that our agency staff are protected financially during this crisis.

After school events and activities

We believe there should be a review of Directed Time activities such as parents’ meetings, school trips and events outside school. Are these absolutely necessary? Can they be organised in another way.

Hygiene

As part of schools’ risk assessments, we think there should be a review of cleaning routines, particularly in respect of handles and switches, keyboards, surfaces etc. All toilet and washing facilities should contain sufficient soap and water to allow users to wash their hands, which can help eliminate or reduce the risk of the virus spreading. Our support staff, especially cleaning, premises and kitchen, should be provided with the necessary resources and protective clothing to carry out their work safely.

Exams

Exam boards are monitoring the situation and preparing for contingencies should there be long-term school closures. Our students will be worried about their future and we encourage colleagues to do our best to support them in this challenging time.

Workload and cover

Cover policies should not be changed in the light of this crisis. Schools must look at ways of reducing workload at this stressful time and halt all observations and performance management policies.

School closures and working from home

If staff absence reaches a level where the safe management of the school cannot be maintained, plans must be in place about minimum staffing with ratios to pupils which do not compromise safety which may involve partial and complete closure to pupils.

Time should be given to prepare staff for school closure, so colleagues can work collegiately to support each other in this work. School management should outline their expectations for staff working from home in the advent of school closure.

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