Zero Covid campaign, to which GMLC recently affiliated, has been working hard to highlight breaches in health and safety and employment law at work during the pandemic. To eliminate the virus, they argue, we will need to crack down on non-compliant employers forcing workers to turn up for non-essential work in unsafe workplaces merely for the employer’s own efficiency or profits.
On 1 March, Zero Covid held a meeting on unsafe workplaces with over 100 people in attendance, despite organising the meeting at one week’s notice.
Janet Newsham from Hazards Campaign spoke on health and safety law and employers’ obligations to their staff. Health and safety law has not changed since the pandemic, as the law already provided a lot of the guidance needed to implement safer work practices – but of course, many employers are not following these rules properly, so many workplaces remain high-risk places for anyone working there or passing through. She argued that the best thing you can do as a worker is to join a union, as, according to statistics from Hazards Campaign research, unions make workplaces considerably safer. Your union can help you hold employers to account over health and safety law that they may otherwise overlook or ignore, as well as providing you with guidance, advice and support if your employer refuses to change their approach. She also encouraged workplaces to elect or add health and safety reps so that there’s always someone fighting your corner at work.
Speakers from trade unions including Unison and the PCS talked about receiving huge volumes of enquiries about members’ workplace safety since the pandemic began. They also talked about bad health and safety policies and breaches they have seen, including managers bringing 40+ employees into a single room to explain new Covid guidelines!
As lockdown eases, workplaces will continue to open unsafely – from schools to building sites to restaurants to offices. As one speaker pointed out, ‘Covid-secure’ is an increasingly meaningless term, used to reassure workers and and the public that spaces are safe without evidence that transmission is being reduced effectively. The fight for safer workplaces, risk assessments and fair treatment of employees during the pandemic has been huge. It will only continue throughout the coming months of easing restrictions.
Several people in the meeting talked about mental health, expressing how difficult lockdown has been for many, especially for those in stressful home environments, such as abusive relationships or overcrowded shared housing. But our mental health is only going to get worse if lockdown is relaxed in ways that cause another spike before vaccines have been widely distributed (for example, sending all children back to school at once on 8 March!). Speakers pointed out that the government is expecting at least 30,000 more deaths if they follow their current plan, generating untold further suffering for people who are grieving and living in fear of the virus. In this context, only a Zero Covid strategy can restore people’s mental health, not a rushed return to busy indoor spaces.
Zero Covid campaign used this meeting to launch five days of action against Covid at work. The campaign has provided some ideas for things you can raise re: lack of safety at work during the pandemic, including safety measures, procedures, ventilation, cleaning and travel.