Workplace Report April 2020

Bargaining news

Transport workers impacted by coronavirus crisis

This Easter weekend, general trade union Unite secured sick pay at full pay from day one for all of London’s bus staff. Unite regional officer, Joe Murphy said that the victory, which affects 20,000 bus workers, means that they no longer have to “face the terrible choice between health and hardship” which comes with only receiving statutory sick pay at a time of national health emergency.

The win for the workers follows intense pressure from the union on bus operators, Transport for London (TfL), London mayor Sadiq Khan and the national government.

During the crisis, transport workers are playing a key role in keeping people and goods moving and putting their lives at risk every day. Despite this, employers are continuing to fail in their duty to provide workers with protection from exposure to the virus. A problem compounded by the fact that the government’s latest action plan for the supply and delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) does not allocate any to transport workers. In one case, workers for First South West Buses were forced to improvise screens from shower curtains.

Transport union the RMT has issued advice to its many thousands of members in the rail and bus industries throughout the UK telling them to stop work on safety grounds if employers do not provide protection from Covid-19. “That means that if they are not provided with PPE they should not be working,” said general secretary Mick Cash.

The advice is to walk off the job and invoke the “safe work procedure if employers do not follow key protection measures” including “only conducting activities and tasks that are necessary for running the essential services for key workers and movement of freight during the emergency.”

Manuel Cortes, who is head of the transport union TSSA, wishes to see the public transport system stripped down to a skeleton service. He said: “Very sadly we have seen some deaths amongst public transport staff and I’m now urging the government to make it clear that all non-essential public transport workers should be stood down. This must be a matter of priority. We need a standard approach on this across our railways and the wider transport network. We know that some companies continue to have booking offices and gateline staff working at stations – this flies in the face of the government’s own advice.”

Railways

Being stood down is not without its issues for transport workers, however. This month, Arriva, the operator of Grand Central, followed FirstGroup and Hull trains in temporarily suspending all its services, as coronavirus restrictions continue to affect its passenger numbers.

The company placed its 250 plus staff on the furlough scheme and said that it will not pay more than the 80% wage rate that it will get back from the government, despite the scheme’s encouragement to do so. They anticipate the measure, which amounts to a huge wage cut for workers, will last for at least two months.

As an open access operator rather than a franchisee, Arriva is not covered by the Department for Transport’s temporary suspension of the normal franchise agreements, which transfers all revenue and cost risk to the government and protects the terms and conditions of franchised rail workers.

Mick Cash of the RMT said his union was appalled. “Arriva, who own Grand Central, are a wealthy company which can afford to make up the 20% difference”.

Maritime

Meanwhile, in maritime transport, employers have been also caught taking advantage of this time of reduced activity to undermine the terms and conditions of workers.

RMT has reacted with anger as P&O Ferries proposed a series of changes for ratings, including pay cuts, replacement of UK seafarers with foreign crew, no-strike clauses, statutory redundancy, cuts to the sick pay scheme, scrapping benefits for long service, and leave restrictions.

Cash said of P&O Ferries, whose ultimate owner is the global corporation DP World, based in the United Arab Emirates: “Threatening permanent cuts to seafarers’ jobs, pay and conditions and the maritime supply chain at a time of national crisis sends a message of utter contempt to my members and the country as a whole.” The union is asking the government to intervene to protect jobs.

Swedish ferry company, Stena Line, has announced it is going to furlough staff and issue redundancies, despite a lack of certainty over whether seafarers have access to the UK government job retention schemes.

Their aim is to stand down 600 staff from its 2,000 plus strong seafarer, docker and port service workforce in the UK and Ireland and seek a further 150 redundancies. Cash said: “This is another major employer of UK seafarers reacting to flatlining demand by gambling with key workers’ jobs and future at a time of national crisis.”