Just days after the government announced the planned easing of lockdown, over 180 people attended the Safe and Equal campaign’s first public Zoom meeting on 12 May. The meeting brought together workers from health, social care, local government, the civil service, supermarkets and retail, construction, power and education sectors, including many outsourced workers.
The meeting heard from Ruth Cashman, library worker and Lambeth Unison joint branch secretary, Tracey McGuire, teaching assistant and NEU [National Education Union] Executive member, Kas Witana, NHS worker, and MPs John McDonnell and Nadia Whittome.
John McDonnell MP spoke about the impact of austerity on our care sector and on the government’s ability to respond to the pandemic: “there were over 100,000 vacancies in social care before the pandemic hit us, and you had over a million people not receiving the care that they should have received. Social care... before the pandemic... was based on low-paid, very exploited workers, in extremely insecure employment.”
“We now have more than a million on zero-hour contracts, which makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. We’ve still got the overhang of anti-trade union legislation, undermining the ability of trade unions to represent people effectively.”
Nadia Whittome MP was recently laid off from her job in a care home after speaking out about the lack of PPE and sick pay rights for care workers. She spoke about the culture of bullying and silence in care homes, with workers being threatened with dismissal if they whistleblow.
The second half of the meeting was given over to workplace organising. Workers met with others in their industrial sector to discuss how to advance the struggle for full isolation pay in their workplace.
Many workers attending the meeting are currently on the “vulnerable” list and have been shielding at home. With the drive back to work, there is a danger that these workers may be forced back into workplaces that pose very serious risks to their lives. Safe and Equal has campaigned for isolation pay for potentially infectious workers. Equally significant is protecting the health and lives of our workmates with underlying health problems.
Education workers discussed the proposed reopening of schools. There are pockets of school workers, such as outsourced cleaning and catering staff, who lack ordinary rights to occupational sick pay. And another problem for stopping the spread of the virus within schools is the rights of parents and caregivers to paid time off.
In normal times, parents and caregivers often rely on grandparents or other members of the extended family to care for children when they are sick. However, this is not an option during the pandemic. If any member of the household gets symptoms, then adults will have to stay off work for 14 days to care for children.
If those adults do not have full isolation pay then they may continue to work when they should be self-isolating, and children will continue to attend school. The virus may spread quickly throughout the school community, especially as infected children often experience mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.
The only way to meaningfully reduce this risk is give all workers the freedom to follow public health advice without suffering financial hardship. Schoolworkers can insist on this right for parents and caregivers as a necessary school safety measure. If education workers took up this demand, then it could have a powerful impact on the lives of many low-paid workers.
It is worth noting full isolation pay has been introduced, in a limited and partial way, by emergency legislation... in the USA. At the beginning of April, Trump rushed through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which granted all employees in medium-sized businesses the right to isolate on full pay for two weeks. Overnight between 22 and 65 million workers were granted the right to two weeks’ full isolation pay.
Even hyper-exploitative firms like Walmart and McDonalds followed suit, and many more laws have been passed at a local and state level to extend this provision. Trump’s administration was forced to recognise the public health implications of poor workers rights during the pandemic.
Safe and Equal will continue to organise action at workplace level, share some expertise and resources on the right to refuse work on health and safety grounds, and lobby MPs to demand sick pay for all.
Breakthrough on isolation pay?
On Friday 16 May, in response to the growing death rate in care homes, Boris Johnson announced a £600 million “infection control fund” for care homes.
Buried in the small print of the guidance, the Department of Health and Social Care state: “The infection control fund is intended to help providers pay for additional staff and /or maintain the normal wages of staff who, in order to reduce the spread of infection need to reduce the number of establishments in which they work, reduce the number of hours they work, or self-isolate.”
To date there has been no press coverage of this new provision, and the government is keeping quiet about it.
Presumably they don’t want workers in other sectors demanding the same rights, or the awkward question: how many lives might have been saved if careworkers were granted full sick/isolation pay from the start of the pandemic?
Safe and Equal will do all we can to broadcast this new provision and encourage careworkers to join unions and fight for their rights.
As more careworkers become aware of this new right, our carehomes will become safer. We hope it will also give confidence to workers in other sectors to raise their own demand for full sick pay and isolation pay.