The TUC’s first-ever online-only Congress started today (September 14) with a wide-ranging debate on workplace safety amid the coronavirus pandemic and the vital role key workers and unions have played over the last six months.
Moving the general council statement which opened the debate was Unison’s Liz Snape.
The statement called on the government to take a number of steps, including fully restoring resources to key health and safety regulatory agencies, such as HSE and local government that have suffered a decade of austerity cuts; introducing a new regulatory requirement for all employers with more than five employees to publish their risk assessments online easily accessible to all; and introducing a new right for accredited trade union safety reps to access all workplaces where they have members to provide advice and guidance on health and safety at work, among other measures.
“We know that unionised workplaces are safer,” the statement read. “Research shows that, on average, the presence of union safety reps cuts risk of accidents and injuries by half. But the government has rejected our offer to use experienced, trained union safety reps to provide advice and guidance to workers or employers without union recognition arrangements, or to work with employers.”
The statement also highlighted the vital work of trade unions amid the current crisis.
“Throughout the pandemic trade unions stepped up to the plate,” the statement continued. “Emergency measures have been agreed across public transport, from rail to light rail, buses and aviation. And trade unions have led on measures to keep services operating, while protecting the safety of staff and passengers alike. Trade union expertise and action has served to save lives, and not just those of our members, but of the wider public too.”
Several people contributed to the debate, including Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, who highlighted in particular the vital role that trade union reps have played during the pandemic.
“Without doubt, it is our reps who are the backbone of the frontline defence against Covid,” she said, adding that “unionised workplaces are safer workplaces”.
Cartmail went on to say that it was essential that the trade union movement demand that the government recognise the role that unions have played in the last several months.
She said the government could do this by first of all repealing the Trade Union Act, and by making sure that reps get enough paid time off – also known as facility time — to carry out their duties. Cartmail went on to call for the restoration of funding to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local government.
Cartmail threw her support behind the general council statement, and specifically highlighted the need for employers to publish risk assessments on a central government website, and the urgent need to increase statutory sick pay (SSP).
A higher SSP is all the more vital, she said, as more and more people who have had coronavirus continue to have debilitating complications for months following the initial infection.
Urging trade unionists to stand together at such a difficult time, Cartmail said, “Our strength is our collective organisation”.
Responding to the debate about safety at work, Unite national health and safety advisor Rob Miguel welcomed the discussion.
Miguel echoed much of what Cartmail said as he told UniteLIVE that “respect and recognition for the role of trade unions must be at the very center of any of this recovery strategy, starting with a Government commitment to repealing the Trade Union Act”.
“Rolling out sectoral collective bargaining, review the rules on trade union recognition to make it easier for trade unions to gain recognition and in turn appoint union reps,” he added. “Where union reps operate accidents and ill health are cut by up 50% in well organised workplaces. That’s half the suffering and a significant economic saving for business across the UK and beyond through our international trade union links.
“Unite is adamant that creating legal provision to enable trade union roving Safety Reps with rights to access workplaces and serve inspection notices, similar to HSE improvement notices is the best and only way forward,” Miguel continued. “HSE have experienced massive financial cuts to date our reps can help fill this gap, but we must continue as we always have to campaign to ensure HSE get more funding.”
Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland took part in a separate debate about the unequal impact of coronavirus, following this morning’s initial debate on safety.
“Coronavirus has shown us the deep, endemic inequality in this country,” she said. “We need urgent action for equality and jobs. It’s 2020 and it’s now time more than ever, that we have real equality.”
You can tune in live to TUC Congress here.
By Hajera Blagg