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Unite Legal Services: Weekly coronavirus COVID-19 latest news round-up – 08 February 2021

red rectangle on cream background with black text  CORONAVIRUS COVID-19

At Unite Legal Services, we’ve collated the latest news and information regarding employment matters and workers’ rights in relation to coronavirus COVID-19 developments.

01 February 2021

Anger at GE’s ‘financial torpedo’ on workers’ pensions

Nearly 3,000 workers at industrial conglomerate GE will be taking ‘a huge financial hit’ under proposals to close the defined benefit final salary pension scheme.

Unite said it was ‘a financial torpedo’ for the retirement incomes of 2,800 workers who had shown ‘an incredible amount of dedication’ to keep GE businesses running smoothly during the pandemic.

The company wants to close the GE Pension Plan (GEPP) and the GEAPS defined benefit pension schemes and, from 1 January 2022, move members to the GE’s existing and inferior defined contribution scheme which is at the mercy of fluctuations in global stock markets.

Unite has written to GE’s UK CEO Kevin O’Neill asking for consultations to take place at a national level before the deadline of 9 April as the best way to deal with this issue in ‘the most organised and coherent manner possible.’

Airbus Broughton workers vote for shorter working week to save jobs

Unite members employed at the Airbus plant in Broughton have voted to support the introduction of a shorter working week in order to save jobs. Following a ballot of Unite members at Broughton, the workforce voted overwhelmingly in support of the proposals.

The plan which was negotiated between Unite and Airbus will see a reduction in the working week of 5 per cent to 10 per cent for a short period of time. The agreement that the workforce has now accepted will remove the possibility of compulsory redundancies and provide a roadmap to a resumption of full time working once the COVID-19 crisis recedes.

02 February 2021

Portsmouth council accused of exposing tenants and workers to COVID-19

Portsmouth council has been accused of needlessly exposing its council housing tenants and outsourced workers to COVID-19.

Unite has become increasingly alarmed that workers at Comserve, Portsmouth council’s outsourced building maintenance division, who are responsible for maintaining the local authorities housing stock, are being forced to continue to undertake routine maintenance work in tenant’s homes.

By being forced to undertake routine maintenance work in occupied properties, tenants, workers and their families are at increased risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19. It will also result in higher rates of transmission in Portsmouth as a whole.

Unite believes that Portsmouth council is applying different standards for its directly employed staff, who have strict instructions not to enter people’s homes compared to its outsourced staff who are being forced into exactly these scenarios.

Unite is demanding that clear rules are put in place to allow workers to exercise their legal right to refuse to undertake work if they believe their health is at risk, for instance if tenants cannot or will not socially distance.

03 February

New campaign launched to tackle employment abuses of the Turkish/Kurdish community in London

A new campaign has been launched to eradicate pay and employment abuses of members of the Turkish and Kurdish communities in London during the pandemic.

Unite has joined forces with community organisation Day-Mer to kick-start a workers’ rights campaign aimed at the Turkish/Kurdish community in the boroughs of Enfield, Hackney, Haringey and Islington.

Unite said the workplace problems identified include abuses of the furlough scheme; failure to pay the London living wage, currently £10.85 an hour; and employers failing to pay contractual sick pay, so workers have to rely on statutory sick pay (SSP) of £95.85 a week, if they have to self-isolate during the pandemic.

The areas that the Turkish/Kurdish community work in include retail and catering, wholesale outlets, hotels, restaurants, shops and supermarkets and on industrial estates in the four boroughs.

Mitie accused of adopting discriminatory policies to target low paid Heathrow pay cleaners

Low paid cleaners, employed by multi-million pound outsourcing company Mitie, have been left fearing for their jobs after the company reneged on a previous agreement regarding training.

The workers, who are members of Unite, are paid below the living wage. The majority of the cleaners are of a BAME background and do not have English as a first language. They are required to pass the General Safety and Awareness Training (GSAT) in order to access airside and secure areas at Heathrow airport. They are also required to pass a fire safety course.

Unite believes that Mitie is cynically using the cover of COVID-19 to try and force out some of the longest serving workers, who have worked at the airport for between 10 and 20 years. These workers have TUPE protected terms and conditions, which are better than those that Mitie offers new starters.

By engineering the removal of the longstanding workers, Mitie would be able to further boost its profits through a race to the bottom.

Unite has submitted a collective grievance, and senior staff at Heathrow Airport Limited have been made aware of the issue.

Social distancing helmets for HS2 must not result in workers being disciplined

Unite has warned that hi-tech hard hats which sound a warning when workers come within two metres of each other, should not be used as a disciplinary tool but as an education device.

Unite issued its warning after it was announced that the joint venture company Eiffage Kier Ferrovial Bam, who are responsible for the central section of phase one of the HS2 development, had purchased 1,500 of the helmets.

Unite will be seeking a meeting with the joint venture company about how the helmets will be used and is hoping to receive reassurances that they will not be used for disciplinary purposes.

NHS24 workers to be given vaccination following Unite Scotland pressure

Unite Scotland has welcomed the decision by the Scottish government to prioritise the NHS24 workforce for the COVID-19 vaccination programme following pressure from the nation’s leading trade union.

Following a call with Scottish government officials, it was confirmed that around 1650 workers employed at NHS24 will now be prioritised for the vaccination programme. The latest U-turn comes after a previous decision on 19 January to prioritise around 500 workers employed by the Scottish Ambulance Service as control room handlers for the vaccinations. Both NHS24 and SAS control staff were initially informed by the Scottish government that they were not ‘patient facing’ and did not qualify for the immediate prioritisation of the vaccination programme.

04 February 2021

Workers at Heathrow renew strikes as airport braced for a month of disruption

Workers employed by Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) renewed strike action on Friday 5 February in a bitter dispute, over the company’s decision to fire and rehire its entire workforce on vastly inferior wages and conditions.

The strike is part of at least a month of disruption at the airport. Unite has already announced strikes for February 9, 13, 16 and 18. It is expected that further industrial action will be announced in the future.

The strike is a direct result of HAL’s decision to brutally fire and rehire its workforce, with workers experiencing permanent pay cuts of up to 25 per cent (£8,000 per annum).

The cuts have resulted in HAL going from offering the best pay and conditions for workers in airports, to being among the worst payers overnight. Unite has accused HAL of cynically using the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic to force through long-held plans to cut pay.

The targeted strike action will involve firefighters, engineers, campus security, baggage operations, central terminal operations, landside and airside operations.

Kent tenants and housing maintenance workers needlessly in danger of COVID exposure

Unite is warning that thousands of council and social housing tenants in Kent, as well as the housing maintenance workers who maintain their homes, are being put at unnecessary risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Unite issued its warning after a series of outsourced housing maintenance companies in the county refused to suspend non-essential housing maintenance work during the current lockdown.

This has resulted in housing maintenance workers being unnecessarily forced to enter tenants’ homes, which increases the risk of the tenant, the worker and their respective families of being exposed to catching COVID-19.

The housing maintenance companies that are refusing to restrict their activities during the pandemic are Mears, which undertakes housing maintenance work for East Kent Housing, which in turn manages homes in Canterbury, Margate, Dover and Folkestone.

A separate arm of the same company MPS Mears, which undertakes housing maintenance for Medway council is equally at fault. As is Axis Europe Ltd, which has the maintenance contract for housing association Optivo, which manages social housing in the Swale council area.

Unite has argued that during the lockdown and until it is safe to resume normal working arrangements, only emergency work and essential maintenance procedures (such as mandatory Gas Safe checks) should be undertaken. The union also supports maintenance work being undertaken on empty properties provided that strict social distancing measures are in place and enforced.

Get more support

For more information on how we are fighting to protect the health and safety, and economic stability of our members during the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis, please visit the Unite the Union advice hub.

If you are in need of further advice on an employment law query during the crisis, you can visit the Unite Legal Services coronavirus COVID-19 page, or call Unite’s dedicated coronavirus COVID-19 Legal Advice Line on 0333 202 6557.

COVID-19 personal injury claims

Unite has set up a specialist legal team to advise and represent members who have suffered injury as a result of COVID-19

If you have suffered injury from developing COVID-19 or have tragically lost a family member to the condition, then please call Unite’s COVID-19 PI team on 020 8799 4023.


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