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Unite Legal Services: Weekly coronavirus COVID-19 latest news round-up – 16 November 2020

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.

9 November 2020

Unite Wales launches campaign to support Welsh taxi trade

Unite Wales has launched a campaign calling upon the Welsh government to provide a financial package of support for the Welsh taxi trade. The income of Welsh taxi drivers has plummeted throughout the COVID-19 crisis and their ability to access adequate financial support to replace their lost income has left many of them struggling to pay their mortgages and feed their families.

The Welsh government has provided welcome support to other sections of the Welsh transport system including bus and rail. Unite is calling for similar action by the Welsh government to cover taxi drivers.

Unite is calling for, amongst other things, the establishment of a “hardship fund scheme” alongside financial grants to taxi drivers to install screens in cars and the purchase of essential PPE.

10 November 2020

Major legal challenge launched to defend right to picket during lockdown

Unite has filed an urgent judicial review seeking to protect the right to picket, following the introduction of the new coronavirus lockdown regulations in England.

The case is brought against the chief constable of North Yorkshire and the secretary of state for health and social care.

Following a lawful ballot, Unite members were picketing peacefully and lawfully outside the Optare bus factory in Sherburn in Elmet on 5 November, immediately after the new lockdown regulations came into force.

The local Unite officer had carried out a full COVID-19 health and safety risk assessment and issued COVID-19 picketing guidelines. The members picketing were observing measures such as social distancing, use of face masks and hand sanitiser, while also maintaining a ‘track and trace’ log.

Despite these measures, the pickets were told by a police officer at 08.30 to stop picketing and that if he had to return that day they would be issued with penalty notices and/or fines because picketing wasn’t allowed under the new coronavirus lockdown regulations.

Unite argues that the lockdown regulations must be interpreted consistently with the internationally recognised fundamental right to picket, protected by the Human Rights Act. Unite is seeking an urgent declaration from the court this week to allow the lawful and peaceful picketing to resume.

11 November 2020

Menzies urged to preserve jobs at Luton airport

Baggage and airport logistics company, Menzies, is being urged to halt planned redundancies at Luton airport.

In September, Menzies announced it would make 176 workers redundant as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of sector-specific support from the government.

Following extensive negotiations with Unite, the UK’s principal aviation union, and the government’s belated announcement that it was extending the Job Retention Scheme until March next year, the number of redundancies has been reduced to 45 job losses.

However, Unite is hopeful that with the positive news that pharmaceutical company Pfizer has developed a vaccine that is 90 per cent effective against COVID-19, the aviation industry can recover more quickly than anticipated and these redundancies should be avoided.

Councillors limit Uber app but Gatwick Airport must do more to support local taxi drivers

Unite has welcomed an agreement reached between Crawley councillors and Uber to limit the operations of London licensed Uber vehicles operating in Sussex.

The union, local taxi drivers and campaigners are now calling on Crawley Borough Council to keep up the pressure on Uber’s activities at Gatwick Airport.

Gatwick Airport will continue to permit the Uber app to remain operational within the boundaries of the airport, charging London licensed Uber vehicles to use one of its long stay car parks. This decision will continue to deny local taxi drivers of much needed business in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.

Unite regional officer, Jamie Major, said: "We hope the council will keep the pressure on Gatwick Airport. Thousands of local jobs have been lost and the airport should be going the extra mile for the local economy. Crawley has been a major source of skilled employment for the airport over the years. Gatwick should be putting local taxi drivers first, not Uber. Crawley has been hit hard by the pandemic and whether you're a politician or an employer, the right thing to do is to support the community in these challenging times."

The Law Society ‘in dock’ over failure to use furlough scheme to safeguard 44 jobs

The Law Society is in the dock over its failure to utilise the government’s furlough scheme which runs until the end of March as it plans to make 44 staff redundant.

Unite called on The Law Society, the organisation that represents and governs solicitors in England and Wales, to have an urgent rethink, otherwise ‘it will suffer reputational damage in the court of public opinion’.

The society has proposed to create 47 jobs, but Unite says they are different roles, on lower grades, and include a temporary contract.

12 November 2020

London City Airport accused of poor treatment of its workforce

Management at City airport has been accused of failing to treat its workers fairly, after a litany of decidedly dubious employment practices were uncovered by Unite.

Unite is increasingly concerned that the airport is not using a fair and transparent matrix to make workers redundant. Longstanding employees report that ‘phantom’ disciplinary issues have been raised against them, of which they had previously no knowledge, resulting in them being more likely to be selected for redundancy.

Unite has also learnt that management is trying to use the JRS to prevent members pursuing potential employment claims against the airport. Workers are informed they will be made redundant but are then told that their contract will be extended (under furlough) for a few extra weeks provided they sign a settlement agreement that the worker won’t take an employment case to court.

Unite regional officer Mercedes Sanchez said: “The Job Retention Scheme was designed to preserve jobs and allegations that City airport is using it to insulate themselves against future legal challenges, is entirely reprehensible and must be fully investigated by the appropriate authorities.

“Unite has sought to get answers and resolve these matters directly with the company but has constantly been refused access to any consultation meetings.

“It is simply intolerable that workers do not know on what basis redundancies are being made. Without a transparent system it is inevitable that workers will feel they have been unfairly treated.”

British Airways braced for large-scale disruption as cargo workers ballot for strike action in fire and rehire dispute

British Airways is facing significant disruption in its cargo handling business in the run up to Christmas as members of Unite prepare to ballot for industrial action.

The dispute is a result of British Airways’ highly controversial plans to fire and rehire its entire workforce on vastly reduced pay.

Members will begin to be balloted on Thursday 19 November and the ballot will close on Monday 7 December. If members vote for industrial action, strikes could begin shortly before Christmas.

Ironically, while the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the number of airline passengers being dramatically reduced, cargo services have remained very healthy and are a vital revenue stream for the company at the present time.

The workforce has continued to operate throughout the current lockdown and played a crucial role during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to bring vitally needed PPE into the country.

Massive increase in food bank usage during pandemic underscores necessity for welfare reform

Commenting on figures by the Trussell Trust charity showing demand at its food banks increased by 47 per cent between April and September, Unite assistant general secretary responsible for the union's army of community activists, Steve Turner, said: 

“Even before the pandemic, food bank usage under the Tories’ merciless attacks on the social safety net had rocketed. For years, Unite Community activists across the UK have been witness to desperate families being punished by a welfare system that left them unable to feed their children or pay for even the most basic of necessities.

“The coronavirus pandemic has thrown countless workers onto the mercies of Universal Credit and other benefits, and thousands more will follow before the crisis is over. In its current form, the welfare system is a trap that needlessly perpetuates poverty and hopelessness. The system, and the punitive approach it is based on, are in need of comprehensive reform. As a priority and at the very least, ministers must end the five weeks wait for Universal Credit payments.

“As well as continuing to pressure the government to fix the country’s broken social security system, this winter Unite is also running a Christmas appeal to help struggling families by raising funds and donations for local food banks and other grassroots charities.”

13 November 2020

Vaccine success needs a second ‘call to arms’ and a manufacturing minister to avert PPE fiasco repeat

Unite has urged the prime minister to appoint a cabinet minister to bring urgently needed coordination to the production and supply of vaccines in the battle to defeat COVID-19.

The union is also urging the government to issue a second 'call to arms' to UK manufacturing to rally to produce the vaccine, but fears that without senior ministerial leadership put in place urgently the UK will see a repeat of the PPE 'fiasco' when the country was forced to compete with other nations to purchase core equipment once manufactured domestically.

Unite is also calling on the government to place medicine manufacturing on a par with energy, water supply and defence as a matter of national security. 

Drivers and assistants, who take disabled children to school in Hackney, vote to strike over COVID-19 payment

Drivers and passenger assistants, who take disabled children to and from school in Hackney, have voted unanimously to strike over the failure of the council to make a one-off £500 COVID-19 payment and other health & safety issues.

Unite called on Hackney council in east London to negotiate a fair settlement before strike days are announced shortly.

Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said: “This is a very clear message from our members that we will take strike action to defend our members’ safety.

“We are asking for a one-off lump sum of £500 for our members, who number more than 30, to go some way towards recognising the value of the work they undertake. Not so long ago we were clapping essential workers, but clapping does not pay the bills.

“The employer has the chance to resolve this dispute before we announce dates for industrial action shortly – we urge the council to grasp this opportunity.”

Right to picket during lockdown secured following Unite legal challenge

The government has been forced to confirm that workers taking lawful industrial action have a right to picket their workplace during the COVID-19 lockdown.

In doing so they have vetoed the actions of North Yorkshire police who last week told Unite workers taking lawful industrial action to desist from picketing on the morning after new coronavirus regulations were introduced.

Unite assistant general secretary, Howard Beckett, said: “This is a vital victory for the entire labour movement.

“The right to picket is fundamental and is one of the few actions that workers are legally entitled to use following a lawful ballot for strike action. Without the right to picket the very essence of the right to withdraw their labour is undermined.

“We have seen opportunistic employers take advantage of this crisis with “fire and rehire”, seeking to have workers’ pay for this crisis with their terms and conditions. For however long this crisis lasts this victory on picketing means that we retain the ability to hold bad bosses to account.”

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.