'We need the government to step in'

Unite presses case for sectoral government support at BEIS hearing

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Unite has continued to press the government over the need for tailored government support for individual sectors throughout the economy – from aerospace to hospitality to automotive and more – to stem a full-blown depression amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Most recently, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner gave evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Startegy (BEIS) select committee in a hearing on Thursday (June 18) morning, alongside others from the trade union movement.

Turner highlighted problems with the government’s furlough scheme, where the state covers 80 per cent of wages for furloughed workers, that’s due to end in October.

Beyond the need to extend the scheme, which he said Unite wholeheartedly welcomed when it was first set up, he highlighted the large number of workers not covered by the scheme, include those who just started their jobs when the crisis hit, as well as those who are on short-term sick leave.

With the test, track and isolate system coming in, he said many people could be self-isolating several times and would only be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) which is not a livable wage – at just £95 a week.

He told the hearing, which also featured speakers from other unions such as Usdaw, GMB, Equity, Prospect and others, and was chaired by Labour MP Darren Jones, the horrors Unite members faced at work amid the pandemic.

“We’ve had walkouts in the food industry where failure to provide PPE disproportionately impacted on migrant workers where employers felt they could do what they pleased,” he said. “We saw it in 2 Sisters. We’ve had walkouts in Northern Ireland in Moy Park where thousands of workers took it upon themselves to leave their place of work to protect themselves.”

“We’ve seen pregnant women told to self-isolate on statutory sick pay. We’ve seen disabled workers being asked to go back to work without proper risk assessments.”

Turner noted that while Unite had a good relationship with many employers, where the union was able to implement risk assessments and other safety measures to ensure the highest safety standards for their workers, the government still had a role to play.

“The big issue is where the trade union movement is not very well organised,” he said. “And therefore employers are free to do as they please with very precarious and vulnerable and anxious workers – and that’s where we need the government to step in,” he added, noting that Unite’s health and safety reps were ready to help the government ensure safe workplaces on a national scale.

Turner highlighted the various measures other countries had taken to protect workers and the economy, such as in Germany with short-time working to prevent mass job losses.

He said that a tailored package of support for, example, the aviation sector had to be far-reaching to be effective. Such a package was one that isn’t just about individual airlines but also about airports, about regional connectivity, research and development and sustainability among other considerations.

Turner emphasised that it was imperative the government intervened quickly and that it took a long-term approach to ensure a prosperous future once the pandemic is over. 

“This [crisis] is going to be devastating for particular groups, for skills for knowledge and our long-term resilience really,” he said. “We need to think about what we need to produce here in the UK to green our economy. How do we diversify production from what we’re doing now? And how do we create those job guarantee schemes that give kids a bit of hope and opportunity in their futures instead of the devastating future that looms in front of them now?”

You can catch some clips from Turner evidence in the videos below:

And you can watch the full BEIS committee hearing on Parliament TV here.

By Hajera Blagg

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