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Unite Legal Services: Weekly coronavirus COVID-19 latest news round-up – 21 September 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.

14 September 2020

London bus drivers begin strike ballot over remote sign on dispute

London bus drivers employed by Singapore-owned Metroline will be balloted  for industrial action, which could hit the capital's roads this autumn, in a dispute over the company’s proposals to introduce a controversial remote sign on system.

Unite argues that there is no benefit to passengers, and in fact, remote sign on could well cause disruption to services used by the hundreds of thousands of people who use buses every day to get to work and school.

Anger about Metroline’s proposals was highlighted by a consultative ballot at both Metroline companies in the capital. Unite members at Metroline West recoded a 99.2 per cent yes vote, while the figure for Metroline Travel was 97.8 per cent.

Ballot papers will be sent from Friday 18 September and the ballot will close on Monday 26 October, with strikes across London in November should the members vote in favour of industrial action.

The workforce has described Metroline’s plans to introduce remote sign on as a ‘massive slap in the face’ for a group of workers who kept London moving during the height of the pandemic, despite the deaths of 29 London bus drivers and many others suffering serious illness after contracting the virus.

Although the dispute is primarily about remote sign on, there are also concerns about the lack of air conditioning, problems over the sealing of cabs and other health and safety worries.

Unite statement on health organisations protesting at Public Health England’s demise

A total of 13 health unions and professional organisations, including Unite, have written to the health and social care secretary Matt Hancock protesting at Public Health England (PHE) being subsumed into the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP).

In the letter, they raised concerns about the creation of NIHP ‘without properly consulting expert staff and without a clear plan for the future of large swathes of PHE.’

Unite National Officer for Health, Jackie Williams, said: “Unite is the lead union for staff at PHE and we have already stated that we believe that PHE was being lined up as the fall guy for ministers’ bungling over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Serious questions need to be asked about the political decisions behind why PHE has been axed in this disgraceful fashion. It is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care answerable to Matt Hancock and his ministerial team, in particular public health minister Jo Churchill (with ‘sponsorship of PHE’ in her portfolio).

“There has been a complete lack of consultation with expert stakeholders and the unions representing the staff about the future functions of PHE at a time when the country is still in the middle of a global pandemic. Such discussions should take place as a matter of urgency.”

15 September 2020

London City Airport workers left ‘worried and fearful' over job losses

Workers employed at London City Airport have been left ‘worried and fearful’ for their futures after their employer announced proposals to make 239 workers redundant, 35 per cent of the airport’s total workforce.

Workers first found out about the job losses through reports in the media and have only been supplied with very limited information by the airport.

The job losses announcement will come as a severe blow to the local community. City Airport is in Newham, one of the poorest boroughs in London, and many of the workforce are from the local area.

Unlike most airports, City Airport does not recognise Unite meaning that information on the redundancies has not been shared with the union. Although Unite has not been provided with the exact details of the proposed job losses it is understood that a large number of security officers will be made redundant.

Despite this, Unite will be ensuring that its large membership, which is predominantly lowly paid, is properly represented and is not discriminated against during the redundancy process.

Defence workers left in tears over appalling choice of ‘sign or be fired’

Hundreds of low paid workers based at Ministry of Defence sites are being told to sign up to pay cuts or be immediately made redundant.

Over 500 workers employed by ESS, part of the multi-million pound Compass Group, who undertake key roles in cleaning and catering roles on the MoD site, are being faced with cuts in their working weeks and reductions in working hours.

In many cases the workers, members of Unite, are being told that they have to agree to only being paid for 49 or 50 weeks a year, which full time workers estimate will cost them up to £1,200 a year.

The union says that many of the mainly female staff have been left in tears when they are told by management that they have to sign up to the cuts or be made redundant.

Unite understands that ESS is forcing through these cuts across all its MoD contracts including high profile sites such as RAF Cosford and the SAS base in Hereford and St Athans in Wales.

ESS admits that it has not suffered any COVID-19 impact on its MoD contracts but is making these cuts to cover losses made in other hospitality and catering contracts.

McCluskey welcomes Starmer’s commitment to jobs

Responding to Keir Starmer’s speech to TUC congress this morning, Unite leader, Len McCluskey, said: “This was a good speech which showed Keir to be absolutely on the side of working people.

“An unemployment tsunami is looming and I very much welcome the Labour Party’s campaign to save working people from the scourge of mass unemployment by fighting for a new job protection scheme with targeted, sector support for those industries that need it most.

“Failure to do so is to let the historic investment to save jobs made by UK taxpayers go to waste, and worse, will let working communities slide into decline. With political will, that can be averted.

“I also welcome Keir’s condemnation of the increasing use of fire and rehire tactics to hammer wages and conditions, and his call today for this to be outlawed by the government. It is a despicable and immoral practice that is spreading through the public and private sector and must be made illegal.”

McCluskey to the PM: move now on jobs retention or the redundancy floodgates will open

With 45 days to go until the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme comes to an end, the leader of Unite has written to the prime minister to urge him to act before the ‘redundancy floodgates’ pour open.

Unite fears that without a clear and urgent sign of the government responding to the mounting calls from across the business and the political spectrum for longer-term support to save jobs, employers facing short-term struggles will issue redundancy notices.

McCluskey urged the prime minister in the letter to move swiftly to ‘put a floor’ under employers by announcing a modification of the Jobs Retention Scheme (JRS) – along with targeted assistance for sectors under stress, such as manufacturing, aviation and hospitality ­– like that provided by our competitor nations and even the USA.

Len McCluskey, who back in March welcomed the JRS as a ‘bold and very necessary measure’, called upon the prime minister to honour taxpayers’ historic investment, designed to avert mass unemployment, by moving swiftly to signal that a fresh iteration of the JRS is on the way.

16 September 2020

Stop private sector outsourcing, as NHS laboratories ‘sidelined’ for COVID-19 testing

According to Unite, there has been too much reliance on the private sector when it comes to laboratory testing for coronavirus and not enough investment in long-established NHS facilities.

Unite’s stance is underpinned by its Biomedical Scientist COVID-19 survey which highlights the under-use of NHS science facilities and resources as the crisis over the nationwide gaps in the COVID-19 testing regime escalates.

The survey reveals Unite members’ unhappiness at the government’s reliance and priority given to the seven Lighthouse Laboratories, with private sector involvement, while long-established NHS facilities are being apparently sidelined when it comes to investment.

The report is being sent to health and social care secretary Matt Hancock, and the chair of the Commons health and social care select committee, Jeremy Hunt, as well as MPs.

Unite welcomes British Airways partial U-turn on fire and rehire

Following the appearance of Alex Cruz, the chief executive of British Airways at the transport select committee today, Unite Assistant General Secretary, Howard Beckett, said:

"It is thanks to the immense work of Unite reps that British Airways has been forced to accept that it cannot indulge in the comprehensive fire and rehire policy that the airline intended. 

"But Alex Cruz has misled the transport select committee by indicating that fire and rehire is completely off the table. This needs to be corrected.

“There are still too many BA workers facing threats to their wages and working life. These threats should be withdrawn today.

"MPs and the select committee need to be aware that Alex Cruz's comments to the committee earlier are not entirely correct. This is a very important matter and we would not wish MPs and the select committee to get the wrong impression.

"To be clear, the fire and rehire threat still hangs over some BA workers.

"If Alex Cruz wishes to take this opportunity to say that he is removing this threat from our members then Unite is more than ready to talk.

“Draft agreements with British Airways will not be finalised by Unite until members have voted on them and agreed to changes in their contracts.

“Even if agreements are reached and finalised in all of British Airways sectors, this does not herald industrial peace.”

Improved coronavirus safety enforcement call after London curfews mooted

Commenting on an interview in the Evening Standard with Public Health England director, Professor Kevin Fenton, Unite Secretary for the London and Eastern region, Pete Kavanagh, said: “Key to avoiding more draconian measures in the capital, such as curfews, is ensuring that the current rules on social distancing and mask wearing are adhered to properly. Professor Fenton was right to say that everyone has their part to play in this and Londoners have already gone to extraordinary lengths to quell the virus’ spread. 

“However, not everyone will obey the rules, and for the safety of the public and for workers who have frontline roles, there needs to be a far greater emphasis on enforcing key measures. This is especially true for transport, hospitality and shop workers who cannot be expected to enforce the rules.

“As we head into winter and the risk of a second wave increases, the government must ensure that the so-called COVID ‘marshals’ have the resources behind them to do their jobs properly. In workplaces, we need more inspections and fines on employers who are not safeguarding their employees, coupled with firms and the authorities working with trade union health and safety reps to keep outbreaks at bay.

“We must ensure that everything possible is done to keep the virus under control before implementing curfews and other severe infection control measures that will further hurt people’s living standards and the economy.” 

17 September 2020

MP Chris Grayling’s £100,000 part time Felixstowe port job ‘insult’ to staff shouldering pay reductions

Unite has called the appointment of former transport minister, Chris Grayling MP, to a £100,000 a year part time advisory role at Felixstowe port an ‘insult’ to staff shouldering pay reductions due to the coronavirus downturn.

Unite said the seven hour a week role is an ‘slap in the face’ for hourly paid staff who have had their Christmas bonus cancelled and undergone detrimental shift changes to help the port’s owner, Hutchison Ports Europe, weather the impact of the pandemic. 

The union, which has more than 2,000 members at the port, said Hutchinson Ports ‘clearly has money to burn’ if it can afford to spend £100,000 on an advisor who once awarded a £13.8m cross channel ferry contract to a company with no ferries.

18 September 2020

Luton Airport jobs hammer blow as government inaction bites

Workers employed by Menzies Aviation at Luton Airport are facing a grim future as the company has announced it intends to cut 176 jobs, around half of its workforce.

Menzies currently employs 374 workers at Luton with the workers facing the axe in key roles including baggage handling, ramp agents, bus drivers and customer service positions.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of workers at Menzies have been furloughed under the government’s Job Retention Scheme but that support ceases at the end of October.

19 September 2020

Devolved authorities and unions issue joint demand for creation of a UK Aerospace Taskforce

Unite, First Minister and deputy First Minister, along with First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, issue joint call for ‘urgent intervention’ by Prime Minister Johnson to save aerospace jobs and skills

Jackie Pollock, Regional Secretary of Unite, was signatory to a letter involving the leaders of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved authorities to Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, demanding for ‘urgent intervention’ by the UK Government to preserve highly-skilled jobs in the aerospace sector.

The Unite initiative has brought together both Executive office Ministers, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, and the leaders of the trade union in each respective region. The letter calls for the immediate establishment of a UK Aerospace Taskforce in order that government, business and trade unions collectively work together to support businesses, workers and communities.

The joint letter acknowledges that it is estimated that it will take three to five years for the sector to return to 'pre-crisis levels' and that urgent intervention by the UK Government is essential because the magnitude of intervention required is not within the power of the devolved institutions.

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.

For more information on coronavirus (COVID-19) related benefits, Unite has set up a dedicated benefits advice line which members can access by calling 0333 202 6563.

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.