The bosses are pushing ever harder for workers to return to work. And the Tory government is giving them free rein to restart the economy without the necessary safety measures. The labour movement must organise a fightback.
As the coronavirus crisis drags on, big business bosses have begun to clamour for the lockdown to be eased. The government faces a crisis in its ranks, trying to balance its desire to get profits flowing once more with its fear of a backlash should it release the lockdown too soon.
But as some businesses begin to reopen unilaterally, it seems likely that the government will submit to the demands of big business. The government has already indicated that it intends to reopen primary schools as soon as possible – a prior condition for getting other workers back to work.
The chair of the Tory 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, called on Monday for the removal of “arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”.
In the conditions of the lockdown, the feckless working class were proving “a little too willing to stay at home” in the opinion of the Right Honourable Gentleman. It seems like many on the Tory benches believe this whole coronavirus lockdown is just a chance for the idle poor to be even more idle!
Not to worry: Boris has a plan to get the lazy masses back to work – a plan he issued over the weekend, which he had hoped the bosses and unions would both sign up to.
Getting the agreement of the latter was no small detail for the Prime Minister, as workers are not too keen to be used as cannon fodder for the profits of the bosses. The way the Tories see it, the threats of the bosses aren’t going to be enough to get the idle workers off their backsides; they would also need the coaxing and reassurance of their union leaders.
It is an indication of the pressure from below that traditionally right-wing trade union leaders – who have sung from the hymn sheet of ‘national unity’ ever since this crisis broke – have now been forced into opposition. In the words of TUC leader Frances O’Grady, writing in a letter to the Guardian:
“What the government is proposing amounts to little more than the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) crossing its fingers that employers will act responsibly and keep their workers and the wider community safe.”
The government’s official figure places the number of deaths in the UK at over 32,000 to date. Even this extraordinary figure is likely to be a fraction of the real death toll. Yet it puts Britain in the unenviable position of second place in the world for recorded coronavirus deaths.
The reason for the particular severity with which the crisis in Britain is clear: in the early days of the outbreak Boris’ government opted for a disastrous ‘herd immunity’ strategy. They were unwilling to call a lockdown because of the economic damage it would do.
The UK now has the highest Coronavirus death toll in Europe.
This is devastating but it wasn’t inevitable.
We must now resist calls from big businesses and Tory backbenches to end the lockdown before it is safe.
People must be put before profit. https://t.co/VPEzM25Oxe
— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) May 5, 2020
This strategy quickly became untenable. The damage was compounded by the government’s failure to acquire proper PPE for healthcare staff, and the damage done by a decade of austerity to a now-crumbling NHS.
As the government rushes to bring the lockdown to an end, it is being driven by the same overriding consideration: not to excessively burden big business with so much ‘red tape’ over health and safety.
The BEIS guidelines are little more than suggestions; ideas for business to take up where they see fit. They advise that social distancing and handwashing facilities should be provided… “where possible”. They appeal to employers to “consider” more deep cleaning. And they ask bosses to do what they can to help vulnerable workers (pregnant workers, those with pre-existing conditions, or the over-70s) return to work.
Employers are threatening staff with the sack if they don’t turn up to work once the lockdown is lifted. But these guidelines do nothing to stop the bosses demanding that workers put themselves at mortal risk. On PPE, the government guidelines were literally a blank page!
We have already seen how ‘essential’ workers – hypocritically lauded by the government and its cronies – have been forced to work without adequate PPE, social distancing, or cleaning. This included workers in supermarkets, hospitals, meat-packing plants and (non-essential) construction sites whilst the lockdown was on.
The bosses in these industries gave us a picture already of how the capitalists will attempt to cut corners and reduce costs as far as possible.
Now millions more workers are being told to return to work and place themselves at the mercy of the bosses, who only care about profit. This government has now given these bosses full leeway to skimp on health and safety measures. But then, what else would one expect from a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich?
Pressure from below
The working class will not allow themselves to be thrown into harm’s way without a fight. The trade union and Labour leaders know this, and this is why they have begun to push back against the government.
Even the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Keir Starmer, has been forced to present a meek and mild opposition.
In a video message today, ‘Sir’ Starmer criticised the government’s proposals as “thin and vague”. The Labour leader was quick to reassure Boris and the Tories however, that this didn’t mean he was retracting the hand of friendship. He quickly added, for the avoidance of doubt, “but I’m not setting up a rival camp here”. Heaven forfend that Labour should form a “rival camp” against the Tories and their big business friends!
Starmer has called for the government to create a “national consensus”. He has said, “People rightly need confidence that it’s safe before they go back out to work, travel or use public services”. These weasel words could be translated roughly thus: “Sorry Boris, I don’t think I can sell this one for you.”
Up until this point, Starmer has taken his cue from the big business press. The main focus of his ‘forensic’ criticism of the Tories has not been on the lack of PPE, testing, or the tendency of the Tories to bend lockdown rules to suit big business.
Rather, at the height of the crisis – with thousands dying each day – Starmer has focused his energy on demanding that the government give big business a clear map of how they intend to end the lockdown!
It is noteworthy too that the TUC have not opposed themselves to the ending of the lockdown per se.
Some unions however, have been forced to go much further, even threatening the government with wildcat strike action. The GMB, hardly known for its militancy or radicalism, has even threatened to invoke a clause of the 1996 Employment Rights Act, which would give it the right to call immediate walkouts where workers are placed “in circumstances of serious and imminent danger to themselves or others”.
The TSSA, CWU, NEU and other unions have made similar threats. These threats reflect the bubbling mood of anger and outrage building amongst workers – anger that the union leaders anticipate facing if workers are sent back in unsafe working conditions.
A safe return to work?
The fact is that if a safe return to work is to take place at all, it will not be on the basis of any set of guidelines enforced by Johnson’s Tory government.
The TUC has called on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to be given powers to enforce safe working conditions, rather than asking the bosses to follow non-binding guidance. But as O’Grady states in her own letter: “According to the TUC’s own analysis, in the past decade HSE inspections have fallen by 70%, and prosecutions by 82%.”
For decades, the trade union movement has been brought to its knees because it has attempted to rest on legislation, ‘independent arbitration’ and paper agreements. These have led workers down a blind alley.
Worse than that, this meek approach from the trade union leaders has allowed the bosses to get away with creating an economy based on precarious working conditions – the very same conditions that now place workers’ lives in such danger in these tense times.
The law cannot bring the employers to heel. In the words of Balzac: “The law is like a spider’s web. The small are caught in it, whilst the big just tear it up.”
Only workers on the shop floor can really know what measures need to be taken to make a workplace safe for themselves and their families. The trade unions must organise workers and prepare to take strike action to shut down any workplace failing to implement proper health and safety measures.
More than this, the trade unions should take the initiative of establishing workplace committees, in order to allow workers to decide for themselves what measures need to be taken, and to ensure that these are implemented.
Only if the working class controls production can we ensure a really safe return to work.
Construction guidelines put bosses’ profits before workers’ lives
By an anonymous construction worker
In the same week as many construction sites reopened across London, the so-called ‘Construction Leadership’ council brought out new working guidelines for sites.
As a worker in the industry, I had hoped that these guidelines would be as strict as possible. If we are going to be sent back to work, surely sites should conform to firm social distancing measures?
On the contrary, the new working guidelines are watered down. Above all, they have reduced the requirement for staff to socially distance.
The guidance once stated that workers must remain 2m from each other. Now it says that if workers are required to be within 2m of one another, they should “work side by side, or facing away from each other, rather than face to face”.
Even worse, where this suggestion is not possible, face-to-face working is not ruled out. The guidance simply states that face-to-face work within 2m should “be kept to under 15 minutes, where possible”.
Every day, we are told that we can get coronavirus from even the most basic social interaction. We queue outside supermarkets 2m apart; we don’t visit our families and loved ones, because even a second of contact could cause contagion.
The idea that we should go to work, and not even be required to socially distance, sounds too ridiculous to be true.
Under these guidelines we would not be able to refuse tasks that would require us to stand close to each other, even face-to-face. In other words, we would be exposing ourselves and others to the disease, without any attempt to mitigate the risk.
Of course, it all makes sense when you look at who is on this so-called ‘leadership’ council. It is chaired by the Tory minister for Business and Industry, Nadhim Zahawi, who himself owns properties worth over 25 million. In 2017, Zahawi reported a yearly salary of £524,696, mainly from being the Chief Strategy Officer for an Iraqi oil company
The council itself comprises 12 CEOs, partners and managing directors from construction firms, and one professor. There is not a single worker or union representative. Not a single person who must ever expose themselves to COVID-19 on a construction site.
Instead, while they self-isolate in their mansions, the fat cats drawing up these ‘guidelines’ are more than happy to enforce dangerous conditions upon workers, all in order to carry on making profits for themselves.
Multiple unions – including Unite and Prospect – have written to the government asking for this guidance to be reviewed. That was over a week ago.
Of course these guidelines won’t be rewritten by the Tories – not when one of their ministers had a hand in writing them in the first place. And certainly not when the Tory government is deep in the pockets of the multi-billion pound construction lobby.
I can say without doubt that I have never seen one of these parasitic bosses helping out on a site. And until they’re willing to pitch in – which I suspect will be never – workers in the construction industry would be better off without them.
We should decide what sites are really essential. Workers themselves should have control over when – and how – to go back to work. An industry run for profit, in the interests of the bosses, will never put workers’ lives first.