Coronavirus news round-up

Latest Unite news on the coronavirus epidemic as the union continues fighting for its members

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As the coronavirus epidemic intensifies, Unite continues to fight for its members both on the wider political stage and in individual workplaces across the UK and Ireland.


On Thursday (March 26) commenting in response to chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement of incomes assistance for self-employed workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, McCluskey said that while details of the scheme have yet to be forthcoming, the programme must be simple, straightforward and speedy to avert a collapse in the household incomes of millions.


McCluskey said, “We are pleased to note the government’s intention to give the self-employed the same economic security during these worrying times as the directly employed. We look forward to seeing the details so that we can examine this in terms of our self-employed members, from cabbies to carers.


“But by far the most effective way to give many of these workers the economic security that they need is to end the abusive status that is bogus self-employment. Ministers can do that at the stroke of a pen, declaring these workers employees and so bringing them into the furlough scheme; where they can access up to 80 per cent of their incomes. The government could do this easily, by statutory instrument possibly, and I am sure would attract cross-party support for doing so.


Ahead Sunak’s anticipated announcement, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey called on the government to change the status of self-employed and precarious workers to employees so that they can immediately benefit from the chancellor’s wage protection scheme. You can read our full story here.


McCluskey also warned that Unite will relentlessly pursue employers who are not doing right by their workers in a time of national crisis.


“I am saying today to employers that if you dismiss Unite members that you could have retained or you send them home on poverty sick pay when there are provisions for them to be paid at 80 per cent of their salary at no cost to you, Unite will pursue you using every legal channel available to us,” he said.


Unite Wales regional secretary Peter Hughes today reiterated this warning.


“Our message to employers across Wales, large and small, is to do everything that you can to maintain jobs and keep your workforce and the wider public safe,” he said. “To use the current uncertainty to shed jobs in search of increased profits would be an act of national betrayal.


“The UK and Welsh Governments have put the biggest financial support package in history to get business through this national crisis,” he said. “All employers should take advantage of this support and aim to come through the other side with their workforces intact and ready to get back to work.”


Win for parking charges

Unite celebrated a major victory for the union’s campaigning, after the government agreed to waive parking charges for health and social care staff across the UK.


Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, “I will do everything I can to ensure our dedicated staff have whatever they need during this unprecedented time.”


After Unite and other unions continuously pressed the government on the issue this week, the government pledged to provide NHS trusts with the money so they can offer free parking to its staff in hospitals, while they also promised to make sure health staff, social care workers and volunteers can provide evidence to display in their cars to avoid any charges.


Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe hailed the news.


“We welcome that the government have listened to what we and others have be saying on staff car parking for NHS staff in England,” he said. “Now our task is to make sure employers honour this pledge without delay.”


Unite general secretary Len McCluskey also welcomed the news.


“Such good news,” he tweeted. “Well done to @unitetheunion @UniteinHealth members who led the way on this. Fantastic victory for our union. We’re working so hard for our members during this pandemic and this is one more step forward.”


Student nurses

More good news in the health sector – Unite and other health unions have reached agreement with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and Chief Nursing Officers across the UK to enable nursing students to help NHS colleagues deal with the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19 by taking on a paid clinical placement as they finish their studies if they so choose.


The agreement means that choice will be paramount – no student nurse will be pressured into taking on a clinical placement. Student nurses can also be assured that they will not lose out financially, that their education and career will be valued, and that their safety will be a number one priority.


In a joint union statement, the health unions told student nurses, “Your unions stand behind you because we value your contribution to the NHS. We are there for you and will offer you support and guidance every step of the way.”


‘Stop terrifying workers’

As Unite general secretary Len McCluskey on Thursday (March 26) said the union would leave no stone unturned in going after employers not doing right by their workers, Unite has directly made that call in a number of workplaces.


Faurecia Interiors, an automotive supply chain firm, was told to stop terrifying laid-off workers by refusing to inform them whether they will be registered under the government’s scheme to pay workers 80 per cent of their wages.


The firm sent a ‘heartless’ letter to staff laying them off until April 20 that makes no mention of the government’s furlough scheme.


Unite, which represents a substantial amount of the workforce at Faurecia, has obtained a copy of the letter that tells staff that during the lockdown they can either take unpaid leave, any remaining annual holiday or be paid in advance using banked hours.


Nowhere in the letter does it mention that the company will be registering laid off staff with the government so that 80 per cent of their wages can be claimed while the spread of coronavirus is stopped.


The union said that Faurecia workers are now deeply worried that they will be left in debt and struggling to cope.


“The letter sent to Faurecia’s staff about their choices during the coronavirus layoff is heartless,” said Unite regional officer Melvyn Palmer. “It makes no mention of whether the firm will be registering its staff under the government’s scheme to pay 80 per cent of wages.


“Many staff are terrified that their only choice will be to struggle through the lockdown without money coming in or to rely on banked hours that will leave them in debt once work resumes.


“Other companies across the automotive sector are making clear that their staff will be registered under the government furlough scheme and working with Unite to ensure that message is heard loud and clear.


“Faurecia, however, have completely disregarded their workforce’s concerns and are refusing to answer Unite’s repeated enquires on the issue. This is no way to treat people during a national emergency. Faurecia must register their workers under the furlough scheme as soon as possible and make it immediately clear to their workforce that they are doing so.”


Sports Direct

Unite has called on controversial Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley to send home the Shirebrook workforce and pay them for the duration of the coronavirus virus period.


Unite has written today to the Sports District management outlining a catalogue of examples where the company has ignored the government’s guidelines for work places during the national emergency.


There are an estimated 3,000-4,000 workers at the Derbyshire warehouse, a key component in Mike Ashley’s retail empire. Earlier this week, Sports Direct had to back down over plans to keep its high street shops open, following a public backlash.


In her letter, Unite regional officer Cheryl Pidgeon said, “We have reports of workers being threatened with no jobs if they self-isolate when they have underlying health concerns.


“We have reports of people being told not to bother about just having two people in the car when they drive to work– but to come in ‘in fives’.


“We have photographic evidence of lack of products available for workers to wash as per government guidelines.


“We have reports of workers not staying two metres apart and photographic evidence of this.


“People are today still using scanners with their fingers and being searched closely.


“The products that many people are working on are not critical to the nation at this moment in time – we have photographic evidence of this also. There are many, many scared workers at the warehouse.”


“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. The work at the warehouse is not critical as per government guidelines.


“For the sake of the employees, the local community and the business reputation please allow workers to go home, stay safe and pay them their usual wages without loss of money.


Unite regional secretary for the East Midlands Paresh Patel said, “When the history of the coronavirus comes to be written, Mike Ashley’s already besmirched reputation will be in shreds, unless he does the right thing and send his Shirebrook workers home on full pay for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.


“Ashley has become fabulously rich on the backs of low-paid workers – now is the time that he should rise above the ruthless pursuit of profit that has pockmarked his controversial career – the nation is watching.”

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