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 on Tuesday (April 7), UniteLive highlighted how the potential collapse of hospice charity Sue Ryder was only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as charities across the UK face a funding crisis without government support.

“The closure of the Sue Ryder hospices would be a national tragedy, but sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg as charities face an unprecedented funding threat that could see the demise of many more charities,” she Unite national officer Siobhan Endean

“We were expecting the funding package for the sector to be announced last Friday (April 3), but it has been kicked down the road again which is completely unacceptable,” she added. “We called for a comprehensive financial package last week – and now it is time for ministers to hit the accelerator before the UK’s charities face the biggest-ever threat to their future.”

You can read our full story here.

Bus workers plea

On Monday (April 6), UniteLive highlighted the plight of bus workers, who are unsung heroes in the coronavirus crisis, literally risking their lives to get NHS staff and other essential workers to and from work.

Yesterday it emerged that several bus drivers have died after contracting coronavirus, and today Translink workers in Northern Ireland joined bus drivers across the UK in pleading that the public stay home and not use public transport unless they are key workers.

Unite deputy regional secretary Davy Thompson highlighted all the protections Unite has secured for Translink workers.

“These include the provision of gloves, hand sanitiser, the introduction of cashless fares, additional protective coverings for security screens and the cordoning off of the front seats to ensure social distancing between drivers and passengers,” he said. “The measures we have been able to secure with the publicly-owned Translink are night and day as compared to that offered by private sector operators – even where these are still continuing to operate.”

But in order for these protections to have maximum effect, the public must stay home, explained chair of Unite’s Metro drivers Michael Dornan.

“Sadly despite the infection control measures, we have seen some of our drivers fall ill but so far we have been lucky and we have no fatalities,” he said. “Every day we go to work hoping that today isn’t the day we contract the virus or worse still bring it home to our loved ones but we have to play our role and help other key and essential workers get to their equally vital jobs.”

 “At these stressful times we know that we have benefited from being a state-owned publicly funded company compared to other big UK bus companies, some of which have laid their staff off as they had no interest in running non-profitable routes. Translink and its workers are there to serve society.”

“We would plead to the public, if you don’t need to travel stay at home, allow this service to be exclusively for other key and essential workers. By being sensible and working together, we will make it through these challenging times.”

Wirral refuse workers stop work due to coronavirus health fears

Members of Unite employed by Biffa Waste Services employed on Wirral council’s outsourced refuse collection contract, have today (Tuesday 7 April) refused to work due to coronavirus health fears – joining others in recent weeks such as food production workers in standing up to their employers who are not taking health and safety seriously.

The workers have for over a fortnight been demanding that Biffa introduces strict social distancing measures to help ensure the workforce is not exposed to the coronavirus.

Biffa has failed to take the workforce’s concerns seriously, and is still instructing workers of up to three crew members to share a cab on refuse rounds.

The attitude of Biffa on the Wirral is at odds with the measures taken on other contracts, including by Newham council in London initially leading the way in introducing measures to ensure workers socially distance, followed by other councils and private contractors.

Unite regional officer Steven Gerrard said, “For over a fortnight Unite has been trying to ensure that Biffa introduced measures to protect our members and they have failed to do so. We have been calling for an urgent meeting to find a safe workable solution to our member’s health concerns, but these calls have been ignored.

“Our members have informed us that enough is enough and they will not continue to have their health and the health of their families placed at needless risk.

“Residents of the Wirral will be alarmed that their refuse workers, who are playing a key worker role, are being treated with such disregard.

“Other councils and contractors have introduced measures to ensure social distancing, it is not rocket science and Biffa must take immediate measures to ensure the safety of its workforce.”

The walkout today is entirely unconnected to the separate ongoing pay dispute.

Balfour Beatty must delay redundancies and furlough workers

Balfour Beatty must furlough workers at its Cross Rail site in Whitechapel, London, instead of carrying on with the redundancy process in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, Unite said today (April 7).

The union said the building giant’s decision to begin redundancy consultations with around 30 construction workers this week, instead of including them under the furlough scheme until the end of the lockdown period, was ‘cruel’.

The redundancies were planned before coronavirus crisis began. However, Unite said that it is ‘very possible’ the workers will need to be taken back on after it has passed, because of the volatilities in the labour market that will follow in the wake of the emergency.

Unite also rubbished Balfour Beatty’s ‘excuse that it does not want to seem to be taking advantage of the job retention scheme’ as a reason for not keeping the workers on the books.

Unite regional officer Mark Soave said, “Our members are loyal and hardworking Balfour Beatty staff who are now facing the prospect of dire financial difficulties for themselves and their families during a pandemic.

“There is no reason for Balfour Beatty to cast them into penury on Universal Credit at such a dreadful time,” he added. “It is very possible they will be needed back on site after the lockdown has ended given the volatilities in the labour market that will follow in the wake of the coronavirus.

“Nor does Balfour Beatty’s excuse that it does not want to seem to be taking advantage of the job retention scheme hold water.

“Clearly anyone with even a modicum of sense can see that registering these workers is the moral thing to do.

“We implore Balfour Beatty’s management to think about the suffering they are going to cause these workers and their families and reverse this cruel decision.”

Unite secures ‘excellent’ furlough agreement for 13,000 Kuehne + Nagel staff

In a win for furloughing workers, Unite  has secured an ‘excellent’ furlough agreement covering 13,000 Kuehne + Nagel staff that will see the logistics company top up payments workers receive under the government’s job retention scheme.

 Following negotiations with the union, Kuehne + Nagel will ensure that workers receive 100 per cent of their wages if they earn under £20,000 and 90 per cent of their wages if they earn under £30,000, Unite said today (Tuesday 7 April). 

Under the job retention scheme, workers will receive 80 per cent of their wages, up to maximum of £2,500 per month, from the government during the lockdown.

A sliding scale will be used by Kuehne + Nagel to top up the wages of staff earning between £30,000 and £40,000, with workers in this bracket receiving 86 per cent of their wages on average. 

Employees also have the option to move onto food delivery contracts that are still operational to avoid being furloughed and retain their full pay packet.

The furlough agreement is particularly important for staff working in Kuehne + Nagel’s food and drink logistics operations, where Unite has about 6,500 members, because deliveries to restaurants, pubs, cafes and hotels across the UK have stopped during the lockdown.

Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture Joe Clarke said, “This is an excellent deal for our members at Kuehne + Nagel and indeed for all of the company’s employees.

 “Kuehne + Nagel staff, while still facing some wage reductions, can rest assured that they will be able to afford to pay their bills and feed their families during the lockdown,” he added.

“For those who still want to work and earn 100 per cent of their wages, the company is offering them the opportunity to move onto contracts that are still operational.

 “Over the past two weeks, Unite has worked closely with Kuehne + Nagel to get this furlough deal through. Other companies should take the lead from Kuehne + Nagel and make sure their staff are equally well looked after during this crisis.”

Unite Scotland welcomes furlough agreement for offshore catering workers

In yet another furlough victory, Unite Scotland has today (April 7) welcomed an agreement to furlough offshore catering workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Catering Offshore Trade Association (COTA) which covers around 2,750 workers involves seven offshore catering companies including Conntrak, ESS, Entier, Trinity, Aramark, Sodexo and Foss. COTA members deliver catering and ancillary services across installations in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS).

The COTA companies will implement the Government Job Retention Scheme and will pay those individuals who are furloughed in line with the scheme. The Government scheme provides that individuals are paid 80% of wages up to a maximum of £2,500 per month effective from 1 March 2020 for a three-month period.

The COTA furlough agreement will include those who are temporarily down-manned; those who are ‘shielding’ in line with public health guidance or those due to being ‘high risk’ and therefore should not work offshore during the COVID-19 Pandemic; and individuals who are employed as ‘ad-hoc’ who have not worked in the last three-months and who are not able to work in the forthcoming three-months where no work is envisioned for this period. 

The country’s leading offshore trade union also last week welcomed a Supplementary Project Agreement (SPA) for those workers covered by the Offshore Contractors Partnership Agreement (OCPA). The SPA will ensure Unite’s members at risk of redundancy or lay off, and those recently made redundant, can benefit from the UK Government Job Retention Scheme. It will also protect those with underlying health problems that have been told to ‘shield’ themselves.

Shauna Wright, Unite regional industrial officer, said, “Unite Scotland is delighted that all COTA companies in the North Sea have decided to implement the government furlough retention scheme, which we have been campaigning for across all the offshore sector. The agreement will relieve the fear and anxiety for hundreds of our members providing catering and ancillary services offshore as their jobs are safe and it will also reduce the financial hardship which a redundancy situation would bring at this time.”

Unite applauds Welsh government for action to strengthen social distancing

While fighting and winning for its members in individual workplaces throughout the UK, the union is also fighting for all workers on the political stage as well by lobbying governments, including devolved governments to do the right thing.

Today (April 7) Unite welcomed the introduction by the Welsh government of new legislation in Wales regarding social distancing during the coronavirus crisis.

Under the new law, employers in Wales now have to put ‘reasonable measures’ in place to ensure two metres distance between workers, with the Welsh government the first within the UK to take such action.

The law – which is not an out-and-out ban on workers being closer than the social distancing guidelines in all workplaces – will be self-policing. Workers, along with their trade unions, will report where there is a failure to put the reasonable measures in place with fines to employers of £60 for the first offence, reducing to £30 if paid within 14 days. Second offences and further breaches will see employers hit with a £120 fine.

Commenting, Peter Hughes, Unite Wales regional secretary, said, “Unite in Wales applauds this move. We have been repeatedly raising our members’ safety concerns during this health crisis, and airing our fears that some employers are not respecting the two metres distance, so it is good that the Welsh government is listening. 

“We hope that employers will understand the intention behind this law and act now to take every possible step to keep workers safe at work, rather than wait to be hit by a fine.

“Unite will work with our members to promote this new law and with employers to ensure that they adhere to these new regulations.”

Howard Beckett, Unite’s assistant general secretary for legal affairs, added, “This law will send a clear signal to bosses that they are now required by law to put their workers’ safety first. 

 “Our members are putting themselves on the line to keep public services and businesses functioning during these extraordinary times, so we say to employers, keep them safe, provide them with the protective and sanitation equipment they need, or find yourselves in legal conflict with Unite because we have vowed to do whatever it takes to keep our members safe.”

Northern Ireland Executive must introduce strict enforcement

Unite in Northern Ireland has asserted that drivers won’t become collateral damage when protections are flouted by employers more focussed on profiting from the current crisis.

Unite regional officer George Brash called on the Northern Ireland Executive to introduce legislation to ensure strict enforcement of health and safety infection control guidance for road transport workers.

“We need to see urgent action from Ministers to secure the health and safety of road transport drivers. That must mean legislation to strictly enforce the Public Health Agency (PHA) Covid-19 guidelines on companies who employ drivers to deliver non-essential goods to domestic premises or who drive heavy goods vehicle to transport essential food supplies to stores,

“Drivers are entitled to the same protections afforded to other essential workers. They are on the frontline and our union will not allow them to become collateral damage to bosses who flout PHA guidance in order to make more profit from the current crisis.”

 “The enforcement of strict workplace cleansing is one of the biggest concerns we are hearing back from drivers who are expected to get into cabs not knowing whether the previous occupant is in self-isolation or if a thoroughgoing internal cleaning has taken place. Cost should not, and cannot, be a factor when it comes to the health and safety of workers.”

Keep in touch

If you’ve been affected by the virus and want to tell us about it then let us know. We’re especially interested if you have any positive news, especially if you’ve been helping or have been helped by others. Contact us at [email protected]

You can also visit our website page for more advice and our membership helpline for vulnerable members

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