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Unite Legal Services: Weekly coronavirus COVID-19 latest news round-up – 15 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.

08 February 2021

NHS bosses probed on profit margins of £755,000 contract for Reading hospital security guards

NHS bosses are being quizzed on the profit margins of the outsourced contract for the security guards at Reading hospital, who are currently locked in a ‘David and Goliath’ pay battle.

Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust is paying Kingdom Service Group Ltd a total of £755,763-a-year to provide security for the trust. The security guards are currently on strike until early March over the Kingdom management’s failure to make a decent pay offer for 2020.

Unite is now questioning whether the contract is ‘value for money’ and how big the profits margins are for Kingdom Service Group - a major corporate service provider with a £100 million plus turnover.

Unite regional officer Jesika Parmar said: “There could be a very strong case for this contract being taken back in-house and the money saved being spent on patient services, rather than a profit-hungry private company, at this critical juncture in the battle against COVID-19.

“We would also like to see the security guards currently on the NHS frontline to be properly rewarded for their dedication and hard work and this would be achieved if the Kingdom contract was jettisoned.”

Labour insourcing plans would end cronyism that ‘blighted’ government’s pandemic response

Commenting on shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves MP’s speech on principles for procurement under a Labour Government, Unite national officer Jim Kennedy said:

“The pandemic brought the Tories’ relentless march to privatise our public services, and the motivations that lie behind it, into sharp relief.

“For more than a decade, our members in local authorities, and the public sector as a whole, have witnessed services and working conditions being driven into the ground by outsourcing.

“The privatisation of everything – from social care and school meals to council house maintenance and refuse collections – has led to a race to the bottom where profits take precedence over performance.

“Huge mistakes in the delivery of test and trace, as well as the scandals surrounding PPE contracts and free school meals, cannot be written off as an honest but mistaken belief in government of ‘private good, public bad’.

“It comes as no surprise to those familiar with the government’s dedication to outsourcing, that far too many of the beneficiaries of COVID-related contracts have close ties to the Conservative Party.

“The cronyism that has blighted the government’s pandemic response, and the quality of public services in the years before this terrible virus hit, has to end.”

Manchester Go Ahead bus drivers ‘bullied and intimidated' with sack threat in fire and rehire dispute

Unite has accused management at Go North West of attempting to intimidate workers into signing vastly inferior contracts. Unite expressed outrage at the company’s behaviour, after management hand-delivered letters to affected workers informing them of the date of their dismissal if they refused to sign the new contracts.

Unite was balloting its members for strike action, in a dispute over the company’s plans to fire and rehire its entire workforce.

The letter, received by drivers who have refused to sign the new vastly inferior contracts, said that if they do not sign the new contract then “Go North West is issuing you with notice of the termination of your employment, which shall end on 8 May 2021”.

Aside from the mental and emotional trauma the letter has caused to the affected members, Unite is highly concerned about the manner in which it has been distributed and is investigating whether the hand-delivering of the letters broke the company’s own COVID protocols or national lockdown measures.

The issue of complying with COVID rules is particularly sensitive as bus drivers in the UK are among the groups of workers at greatest risk of dying from COVID-19.

09 February 2021

London braced for serious disruption as bus strikes announced and further industrial action in pipeline

London bus passengers should brace themselves for serious disruption as Unite announced bus strikes in the capital.

The first wave of strike action involves bus drivers employed by the French owned company RATP, which operates three subsidiaries in the London bus network: London United, London Sovereign and Quality Line. Approaching 2,000 bus drivers are involved in the dispute.

RATP is using the COVID-19 pandemic to attack the terms and conditions of the drivers at the London United subsidiary. Due to the proposed contracts, drivers face wage cuts of £2,500 which will reduce wages to 2015 levels, additionally, due to attacks on conditions, drivers will be expected to be at work for far longer.

The company has also threatened to introduce zero hours style contracts, which would result in drivers only being paid for when they are physically driving a bus and not when they are actually at work.

Manchester bus drivers vote for strike action in Go North West fire and hire dispute

Bus drivers at Go North West, who are members of Unite, have overwhelmingly voted for strike action, in response to the company’s plans to fire and rehire them on vastly inferior contracts and in reaction to the company’s extremely aggressive and hostile approach towards them.

The workers recorded an 82 per cent yes vote in support of strike action on a 77 per cent turnout.

Unite is now consulting with members about how we go forward in light of this decisive ballot result. In the meantime the union is calling upon Go North West to tear up its fire and rehire plans and return to the negotiating table.

10 February 2021

Electricians launch own fund to protect against COVID financial penalties

A group of electricians have launched a fund to ensure that if any of them contract COVID-19 or are forced to self-isolate they will not be left financially destitute.

The workers are employed by electrical sub-contractor NG Bailey and are working on the new MENSA building at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Alder Marston, Berkshire.

If the workers are required to self-isolate due to coming into contact with someone with COVID-19, they are only entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP), which is worth just £95 a week.

The workers are also, in theory, entitled to industry sick pay under the Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement. However, this is not paid for the first two weeks of sickness, meaning by the time it is payable the isolation period has ended, and the worker has returned to work.

The workers initially approached their employer to seek agreement that an additional payment could be made to allow them to afford to self-isolate but this was rejected.

Winkworth estate agent services set for disruption during Goodlord strikes over £6,000 pay cuts

Strikes over attempts to slash staff salaries by up to £6,000 at lettings software provider Goodlord will disrupt services for Winkworth and other London estate agents.

Under the fire and rehire plans, Goodlord’s referencing staff’s pay would plummet from £24,000 to £18,000 – less than the London living wage of £21,157 – while their maternity, holiday and sick pay would also be reduced.

Impacted staff have been told by the company that since they are now expected to work permanently from home after their central London office was closed in October, they do not need to live in London. This is despite having been originally employed on the basis that they lived close enough to the office to commute each day.  

Heathrow workers and local community to benefit as Unite launches learning hub, to improve employability

Unite has launched the learning hub@heathrow to assist its members employed at Heathrow and the local community to develop their skills in order to improve their prospect of finding work and tackle the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, Heathrow was the busiest airport in Europe and supported the employment of 190,000 workers with 84,000 directly employed at the airport.

Aviation is the sector that has been most adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result, it is estimated that over 30,000 workers at the airport could lose their jobs by the time the pandemic ends.

In response to the growing employment challenges faced by Heathrow workers and the local community, Unite has been working with Ruskin College and local MPs Seema Malhotra and John McDonnell to create the learning hub.

Concern over future of the brewing industry as Heineken axes 8,000 jobs worldwide

Heineken’s announcement that it is cutting its global workforce by 8,000 jobs as the pandemic continues to hit the hospitality sector is ‘a matter for great concern’.

Unite understands that the job losses will fall on sales, marketing, admin and backroom staff, rather than directly impacting on manufacturing. It is reported that the cuts will affect less than 100 of the 2,300 Heineken employees in the UK.

Unite has members at the brewing operations in Edinburgh, Hereford, Manchester and Tadcaster in North Yorkshire.

Heineken has said that the closure of pubs in March and subsequent restrictions, including over the Christmas period, has hit sales volumes of beer and cider over the course of the year.

11 February 2021

Unite welcomes Labour support for aviation sector support package to tackle the COVID-19 challenge

Unite has welcomed Labour’s call for the government to introduce a sector specific support package for aviation.

Labour made its call for the government to urgently come forward with a sector support package while raising serious concerns about the government’s hotel quarantine policy.

The government’s hotel quarantine policy is expected to further suppress passenger air travel. Even before the policy was announced, passenger numbers were already just 4 to 5 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Unite is calling for the government to adopt a sectoral plan for aviation, which will encompass the economic and fiscal measures needed to support the sector, including:

  • The extension of, and modifications to, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme beyond April to protect employment in the aviation sector
  • Public service obligation routes to ensure regional connectivity
  • Business rate relief for airports (as in Scotland and Northern Ireland)
  • Extending the period of repayment of loans to aviation companies beyond the current two year maximum
  • All financial support and loans should be provided on the condition that recipients have a clear programme of transition to more efficient and greener travel operations.

The full list of measures can be found on Unite’s urgent autumn/winter update to its ‘Flying into the Future’ blueprint, which was first published in May in response to the coronavirus crisis.

80 tyre job losses add to Burton-on-Trent’s economic woes

The proposed loss of 80 jobs at Pirelli in Burton-on-Trent is ‘another employment hammer blow’ to the town’s struggling COVID-19 economy.

The tyre giant is closing MIRS, the robotic department that makes bespoke tyres, following the downturn in the market during the pandemic.

Unite heavily criticised the company for not taking up the furlough scheme for these workers, instead of pushing ahead with the redundancies.

Unite represents the total workforce at the Pirelli Burton plant, currently about 280 members.

Call for WREN Kitchens not to misuse ‘intermittent’ furlough to slash staff holidays and annual leave costs

Unite has called on WREN Kitchens to guarantee that it will not misuse ‘intermittent’ furlough at its factories in Howden, Barton and Scunthorpe to slash staff holidays and annual leave costs.

The company has told workers it intends to impose a ‘rolling furlough’ in which staff work so many weeks and then stay home for a week under the job retention scheme. WREN’s factories and online consultations are still operating but the company’s retail outlets are shut during the lockdown.

WREN factory staff were forced to take annual leave during the first period of the rolling furlough at the East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire sites, which began on February 1, with the government providing 80 per cent of wages and the company paying 20 per cent.

Employers can designate periods when staff must take holidays, provided that the relevant notice under law is provided. Annual leave can also be taken when workers are furloughed, as long as the employer tops up the government paid wages to the amount staff would normally receive if they had been working.

However, Unite has expressed concerns that WREN could continue to insist that staff use their holidays at the taxpayer’s expense during future periods of intermittent furlough. 

Union and business join forces to call for PM to place UK manufacturing at heart of roadmap for much-needed jobs

UK manufacturing's leaders have joined forces to urge Boris Johnson to put rebuilding the sector at the heart of his roadmap, set to be announced on February 22, to kickstart the UK’s recovery and create desperately needed jobs.  

Unite and the main manufacturing trade federations – the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Chemical Industries Association and the ADS group, which represents the aerospace, defence, security and space industries – set out their calls in a letter to the Prime Minister, published on Thursday, February 11.

With the economy at its weakest in over 300 years, unemployment set to rise further and the outlook challenging, they reinforced the ‘tremendous opportunities’ manufacturing presents for increased trade, job and skills creation. They also set out its potential to deliver on both the government's ‘levelling up’ promise and the country's urgent need to green the economy.

However, the manufacturing bodies and Unite also highlighted the need for stability for the sector while it adapts to the economic challenges and the UK's new post-Brexit trading environment. This includes an extension of the Job Retention Scheme, support for industrial research and development and the creation of a competitive business environment for jobs and skills.

Keir Starmer backs Unite’s Heathrow campaign to reverse fire and rehire

Unite has warmly welcomed leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer's unqualified support for the workers who are fighting the brutal decision of Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) to fire and rehire its workforce on vastly reduced terms and conditions.

As part of Sir Keir’s visit to Heathrow airport on Thursday 11 February he took the time to meet with Unite’s senior lay representatives at HAL. The workers were able to describe to the Labour leader how the company’s decision to force through a fire and rehire programme, which has led to wage cuts of up to 25 per cent (£8,000 per annum) has affected them and their families.

The workers are currently taking targeted strike action in their campaign to force HAL to return to the negotiating table and reverse its fire and rehire policy. The workers have already taken two days of strike action in the past week and took further strike action on Saturday 13 February.

12 February 2021

Manchester Go Ahead North West bus drivers in all out strike over fire and rehire dispute

Bus drivers employed by Go North West in Manchester will begin an all-out continuous strike from Sunday 28 February.

The drivers are walking out as a result of the decision of Go North West (part of the Go Ahead Group) to fire and rehire its workers on vastly inferior contracts.

The workers returned an 82 per cent yes vote in favour of strike action. Unite delayed immediately calling strike action to give the management of the company a short window of opportunity to withdraw its fire and rehire plans, but the company declined to grasp this opportunity.

Government quarantine hotels policy failing to protect workers

Unite is warning that the government guidelines on quarantine hotels fails to adequately protect workers from being exposed to COVID-19.

Unite issued its warning after the BBC revealed how the government’s quarantine hotel policy is notably inferior to that of Australia and has failed to learn the lessons from the success and failures of that country’s policy.

The BBC has highlighted several failings in the government guidelines including:

  • Guests will be allowed access to fresh air outside, escorted by a security guard, whereas in Australia, the view is that staff should not be put at risk by escorting people outside
  • There is no guidance on the timing of meal deliveries, potentially leading to cross-infections between guests as room doors are opened at the same time
  • Surgical masks required for staff provide less protection than the superior FFP3 masks required in Australia's system.

Heathrow strikes suspended as company considers peace offer

Unite has announced that it has suspended strike action at the airport to allow Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) to fully consider proposals to end the dispute.

Members of Unite have taken a total of six days of targeted strike action in the dispute over the company’s decision to fire and rehire its workforce, forcing them onto vastly inferior contracts, resulting in large pay cuts for many of the workers.

Following talks between Unite and HAL, where the union put forward proposals which they felt would bring the dispute to an end and following an initial positive response from the company, the two strikes on Saturday 13 February and Tuesday 16 February have been suspended.

Unite will not call any further action at the current time, but the two remaining strikes for Thursday 18 February and Sunday 21 February remain in place.

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.

Unite has set up a register for all our members to record their experiences of working during the COVID-19 crisis. The survey should only take a few minutes to complete - but by taking this time, you're helping your union keep Unite members safe. You can complete the survey here