Coronavirus news round-up

Read all the latest UniteLive news on the coronavirus epidemic

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In our latest coronavirus news round-up, we begin with the story that Unite members in manufacturing will play a key role in the national effort to tackle the coronavirus epidemic after a new consortium of the UK’s top manufacturing firms was formed to mass produce ventilators.


The Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium, comprised of manufacturing giants including Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, Ford, BAE Systems, GKN Aerospace and others, announced on Monday (March 30) that it plans to imminently help ramp up production of ventilators amid a nationwide shortage.


At present, the NHS has only 8,000 ventilators but will need many times more this number to effectively treat patients who will require hospitalisation for the Covid-19 virus.


Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner welcomed the news, saying, “Today’s announcement is a sign that those working in Britain’s high-tech manufacturing sector are rising to the challenge without question, putting their world-leading skills to use in a wartime type-effort to build life-saving equipment for our NHS.”


“It graphically demonstrates the value of cooperation and coordination and is a stark reminder of why it is so important for the UK to maintain and expand its national manufacturing capabilities and capacity, including the skills and knowledge of its world class workforce.”


You can read our full story here.


‘Utterly betrayed’ in coronavirus fight

Each and every day, Unite continues to call out employers who are not doing right by their workforce.


On Monday (March 30), Unite highlighted the case of cleaners at Ford Dagenham, who have been on the frontline to ensure sterilized areas for the imminent production of ventilators, but now face a 20 per cent cut this week.


The cleaners, who work at Dagenham and Ford Dunton, had been badly let down by the Ford management and cleaning contractor Hamton Environmental which employs them.


While other employees at the company are being paid full basic pay from this week as they are laid-off, the cleaners, who have been on site risking their own health, are being treated less favourably after being told they are to be furloughed this week, which will result in a 20 per cent cut in their already low wages.


Unite regional officer Matt Smith said, “These cleaners demand justice as they are being treated as second class citizens, but are, in fact, essential key workers. As one of the lowest paid group of workers at the Ford plants suffering any deduction in wages will have a huge impact on their ability to keep a roof over their head and feed their families.


“They have stepped up to the plate and done the right thing for the whole country working tirelessly so that the much-needed ventilators for the NHS can be produced at Dagenham.


“But their employer Hamton Environmental will save 80 per cent on the wage bill and also receive a VAT deferral.


“Ford’s cleaners living in London are paid just over £300-a- week and are set to lose 20 per cent of that money from this week, which is an absolute disgrace – they have been utterly betrayed.


“Given the government offset to support wages, the 20 per cent is not a large amount for an employer to pay, but it is an unsustainable amount for our low paid members to lose.”


 ‘Dangerous and stupid’

Unite is also fighting to ensure that social distancing is maintained in workplaces up and down the country.


On Monday (March 30), council outsourcer Norse Medway was called out by Unite, which slammed the company for citing cholera as a reason to disregard coronavirus social distancing and safety measures for refuse workers in Kent, some of who are being forced to work four to a cab without personal protection equipment.


Unite said that during a conference call in which the union suggested that refuse services be scaled back to allow social distancing to take place, the firm replied that this could spark an outbreak of cholera.


The union, which has photographic evidence of workers cramped together in lorry cabs, said the cholera response typified the firm’s ‘dangerous and stupid’ approach to coronavirus safety and criticised Medway council, including leader Alan Jarrett, for ignoring serious health and safety breaches going on ‘right under its nose’.


Unite regional officer Phil Silkstone said, “Other councils and providers have put in place various measures, such as two people to a cab, supplying wipes and hand sanitiser and allowing loaders to meet out on routes to avoid sitting in cabs and restrict social gathering in yards.


“Norse Medway have done none of this and are intent that refuse staff carry on as normal. When it was put to them that services be scaled back to allow for social distancing to take place, Unite was told this could risk an outbreak of cholera. This response typifies the firm’s dangerous and stupid approach to the coronavirus outbreak.”


Across the board problem

Unite believes the problems facing workers at Norse Medway are becoming worryingly common among refuse workers.


Unite has identified numerous reports of workers being expected to travel with three or four other workers in the cab of refuse wagons, which is clearly in contravention of social distancing rules. There is also a major problem with a lack of gloves, hand sanitizer, deep cleaning of wagons and other issues.


Unite has undertaken negotiations with employers and the government as part of the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) forum to establish guidelines on safe working during the current crisis.


The union highlighted instances where it has worked constructively with local councils. For example Newham council in London, have introduced a no depot attendance rule, agreements on social distancing, crews to join round at designated points, if employees use their own vehicle to attend designated points parking restrictions have been lifted and an allowance is paid for the use of their car, and bin wagons are deep cleaned daily. The agreement is reviewed on a daily basis.


Unite said this should be happening across the board.


“Unite members recognise they are essential workers and want to deliver this key service,  but they are becoming increasingly frightened that they, and by implication their families, are being exposed to unnecessary and needless risks, due to the flagrant disregard of contractors and councils to follow the rules,” said Unite national officer for local authorities Jim Kennedy said.


“Private contractors and local authorities must bring in strict rules to ensure that workers can socially distance while at work at all times.


“If a council has outsourced its refuse collection service it still has a moral and public health duty, as the client, to ensure that its contractors are ensuring social distancing and other safety measures are being followed.”


Food production

In another instance of Unite highlighting employers who are not implementing key safety measures, the union has told the government that it must ensure social distancing is mandatory in food production as a matter of urgency.


Unite, which has thousands of members in the food processing sector, including abattoirs, said that the mandatory enforcement by ministers should also encompass retails outlets, such as supermarkets, during the coronavirus emergency.


Unite’s call to George Eustice, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, comes after last week’s walkout by 1,000 workers at the Seagoe Moy Park site in Portadown over concerns about basic health and safety protections for the workforce. Poultry producer, Moy Park is one the UK’s top 15 food producers.


Unite national officer for the food industry Bev Clarkson said, “The lack of the mandatory imposition of the two-metre rule by government is a problem currently nationwide.  Ministers need to make the two-metre rule mandatory, as matter of urgency, across food processing, and also in the retail sector.


“As a society, we have quickly recognised that food production and the retail sector are key areas in maintaining adequate food supplies and keeping people’s morale high.


“I have been in contact with all the meat suppliers where we have union recognition. Some of the employers are introducing social distancing wherever possible, however they are saying that because the government has not stated that it is mandatory within the sector then they are not implementing it on production lines.


“We have strenuously put it to them that if they do not implement it on production lines then the virus could spread rapidly throughout the factories.”


Carluccio’s falls into administration

Unite called on Carluccio’s to do everything it can to support its staff, who now face an uncertain future after the restaurant chain today (March 30) collapsed into administration.


Commenting on the news that will put 2,000 jobs at risk, Unite national officer Dave Turnbull, said, “News of Carluccio’s collapse into administration could not come at a worse time for staff reeling from the coronavirus outbreak.


“Staff were only last week at their wits’ end after the company announced a grotesque 50 per cent wage cut for March in response to the crisis.  Now they’ve lost their jobs.


“It’s a shabby way to treat loyal staff.  No worker should be left to pay the price for  a company’s mismanagement and bad boardroom decisions,” he added.


“Like so many of its rivals Carluccio’s expanded too quickly after it was bought by the Dubai-based conglomerate Landmark Group in 2010.


“Carluccio’s directors and administrators must now do the decent thing in these unprecedented times and put the workers first.


“Unite will be straining every sinew to ensure these workers get the sick pay, holiday pay and any outstanding wages and tips they’re owed, as well as pushing for a decent redundancy package.”


‘Lockdown deal’ win

Unite celebrated a key win after the union negotiated an agreement with Sheffield Students’ Union which ensures hundreds of zero hours staff will receive their wages until mid April.


The agreement was reached following the shutdown of the University of Sheffield on March 17 in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak.


At the request of Unite, the Students’ Union management had already improved its terms for self-isolating zero hours staff, moving them from the infamous statutory sick pay scheme to full pay for the duration of their isolation or sickness absence.


Earlier this month, health warnings linked to Coronavirus (COVID 19) prompted the workers’ union Unite to step up its campaign to support zero hours staff employed by Sheffield Students’ Union.


Unite regional officer Harriet Eisner said, “The agreement gives zero hours staff some much needed confidence in difficult times. Sheffield Students’ Union are to be congratulated for recognising the challenges workers face.


“Sheffield Students’ Union has agreed to pay zero hours workers 100 per cent of what they would have been earning if their workplace had remained open up until mid April.


“At the request of Unite, management had already improved its terms for self-isolating zero hours staff.  The deal was made possible by the workers, proving that when you organise you can win,” Eisner added.


“Unite is still in negotiations with the Students’ Union to protect our members throughout the lockdown period but this is a significant step in the right direction. Unite expects high standards for workers at the best of times but we want to see all workers treated properly – regardless of their employment status – in the worst of times, too.”


 Stay tuned on UniteLive for more of the latest news on the coronavirus epidemic and its impact on members.

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