We are living thorough the world’s worst pandemic in more than a century. Thousands of people have died and thousands more have been hospitalised. Withoutthe courage, expertise and and professionalism of our front line and support workers, society would not have been able to respond as it has.
Safe, Scientific and Agreed
As governments, and others, start to talk about easing lock-down, a return to work and the ‘new normal’ it is important that any steps that are being considered are safe, scientific and agreed.
Covid 19 should cause us to re-think our attitude to health and safety at work as well as public well being. Whether an easing of restrictions is being planned for public transport, schools, factories, offices, warehouses or public spaces, the same tests and rules must apply.
A full risk assessment must be undertaken for every area of life being considered for a lock-down relaxation.
For workplaces, that assessment must involve the staff, trade unions, management and owners. The specific risks must identified, decisions must be based on evidence and best practice and everyone involved must be consulted. It must be Safe, Scientificand Agreed
Each workplace plan needs to be signed off by either the trade union health and safety representative or by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to make sure that they meet all requirements including two metre distancing, PPE and hand hygiene.
All workplace risk assessments must be communicated to workers before they return to work. For schools, any new arrangements need to be made available to support staff, teachers, pupils, parents and relatives. For public transport, staff , commuters and passengers all need to be clear in advance about how health and safety and two metre distancing are going to be safeguarded. For offices, warehouses, factories and for retail outlets the priority must be a ‘safe, scientific and agreed’ path to easing lock-down .
Simply and sensible as that sounds it cannot be taken as a given or as a foregone conclusion.
Too often during this crisis the health and safety of front line and support workers has been taken for granted and casually jeopardised. The lack of PPE and other safety equipment has been an on going issue. Too often solutions to these life threatening risks have been replaced by jingoism, sound bites and the pursuit of profit
Easing the lock-down restrictions has to be governed by a different approach and a different set of rules. We owe it to each other, we owe it to the front line workers and those who support them and we owe it to the all those who have lost relatives and friends and to those who have given their lives saving others.
If securing a safe, scientific and agreed easing of lock-down takes time to achieve then that is a price well worth paying.
In the current circumstances, most of us are forced to think in the ‘here and now’. With the level of threat posed by Cornoavirus, the risk to life, and the disruption to our working, social and family lives, that is a very understandable and very necessary reaction.
The deeper this crisis gets, the more we are all dependent on the people who keep our society functioning. The much talked about front line would not exist if it were not for supermarket staff and other essential retail workers, delivery drivers, warehouse staff, cleaners and refuse workers. They are the base which supports the rest of the front line, and ensures that all the other necessary support services can do ther job.
Yet some of the most important people we rely on are those on minimum wages, zero hours contracts and precarious employment.
The National Health Service has stepped up to meet the challenge of C19 in a way in which few other organisations could do. Its staff and its work is quite rightly being lauded and publicly acclaimed.
Yet only a few months ago, for the first time in its history, the Royal College of Nursing, had to call on its members to take industrial action to secure pay parity and safe working conditions. Sinn Fein, the DUP and the other executive parties had been denying them both demands for years.
For at last ten years the NHS budgets have been slashed by Tories in Westminster and in Stormont. All seems to be forgotten as the very people responsible for the cuts fall over themselves to applaud the nurses they refused to pay
The examples of businesses ignoring the health and well being of their workers by refusing to comply with basic public health and government guidance on social distancing and other measures, demonstrates the priority which the relentless pursuit of profit has over the well being of employees.
There are also many examples of non-essential businesses seeking to trade on the flimsiest of excuses and some times on no excuse at all. Viruses come and go: production and profit are a constant.
The importance and benefits of trade union membership and of a unionised workforce has never been more evident. This crisis has shown that the health and well being of many working people is threatened on several fronts.
The Coronavrus pandemic will end. When it does, many of the changes which it brought about to the way we work and live our lives could have a lasting effect.
Capitalism has a single focuses: profit. It will not look back and say ” How can we ensure that front line workers get the best deal and the best wages?” It will not be meeting with trade unionists to discuss better conditions, better pay or greater involvement in firms, factories or services.
Neither capitalism, nor the political parties which support and administer it, will be looking at the NHS and saying ” How can we improve this, how can we make it better , or how can we fund it more effectively”.
They are much more likely to seeking ways of privatising and profiting from public and personal health. They are much more likely to be drafting plans for even more restrictions on trade unions and union membership and they are much more likely to be looking at ways of capping the minimum wage, extending zero hours contracts and diluting workers rights.
In times of uncertainty, only two things are guaranteed: capitalism will never waste a crisis and working people will be paying the bill.
The plans are drafted and waiting for the storm to pass. We must be prepared and waiting too.
The Workers Party has echoed calls by the trade union movement and others for the immediate and enhanced protection of workers in all essential services.
It is very clear that many workers delivering essential services are being put at risk by their employers who are refusing to adhere to public health guidelines on social distancing and personal protection measures.
It is also clear that a number of companies whose businesses are not essential in the current crisis are continuing to trade and are putting the workforce at unnecessary and unacceptable risk.
If employers cannot protect their workforce they should close down immediately
The Party is calling on the Health and Safety Executive to enforce public health and government guidelines by ensuring full compliance with safety measures at work and is also calling for an immediate Executive Order to be enacted by the Assembly directed against those non essential firms which continue to trade. .
Workers providing essential services which are keeping our society function at this critical time are being put at serious risk through the lack of personal protection equipment and social distancing measures. Other workers re being told to report for work in non essential services and in dangerous and unhealthy conditions like some call centres and production lines.
Unionised workforces at least have power and leverage to effect change but many, many thousands of workers are in non-union firms and are at the mercy of employers who place the relentless pursuit of profit above health, well being and life .
Those who put their workforce at risk must be challenged and sanctione. Those who continue to trade without justification should be closed forthwith.
Such developments, however, must take place in the context of providing effective financial support measures to avoid mass redundancies and to ensure that jobs are protected and workers paid.