Workplace Report May 2020


Reps at forefront of crisis response

In the first of two major articles we look at the experiences of union reps nationwide, as they tell us about their successes, struggles and suggestions during the coronavirus crisis

The Labour Research Department is undertaking a ground-breaking survey of union reps and their experiences during the coronavirus crisis. Nearly 500 have responded so far, describing their struggles, achievements, hopes and fears – as well as offering practical advice for others out there doing the same.

As the government eases lockdown restrictions and encourages more people back to work – many think without an adequate plan to protect workers in place – the role of reps will be more important than ever.

We hope that over the coming weeks and months our survey results will serve to inform and encourage all union activists battling on behalf of others during this crisis, as well as amplifying the vital work that they do.

1 in 4 reps have dealt with furlough, 57% of these won better pay for workers

Regardless of personal circumstances, all reps have had to deal with a range of issues arising from the rapid adjustments to working conditions during the crisis and its impact on different staff.

At least 26% of workplaces covered in the survey had at least some staff on furlough. Of these, over half, 57%, were paying full salaries to furloughed employees, while 43% were only paying the 80% guaranteed by the government, or slightly above.

The survey results show that reps worked hard to negotiate full pay for furloughed staff where it might otherwise not have been offered. Over 21% of the reps who commented on their wins during the crisis had negotiated improvements to their employer’s policy on furlough. They come from across the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Wins comprised topping up Job Retention Scheme pay to 100%; negotiating no detriment to staff on furlough; including fixed allowances in pay; pay for shifts cancelled at late notice; and full pension contributions.

“Early efforts by UCU ensured that furloughed staff were paid 100% (university topped up 20%) -Some extensions of short term contracts on a case by case basis – Pause of most restructures – Changes to certain policies (eg redeployment for staff made redundant).” Rep, Sheffield University

“After a difficult period of management refusal to engage we forced them back to the table where we won a greatly improved furlough process and conditions for staff.” Rep, Bluestar Bus.

Sometimes, reps made creative use of other leave entitlements to make up the full salary amount.

“We negotiated 100% furlough pay for workers. Firstly using the one day (per week of furlough) from the companies two weeks Emergency Pandemic Leave to make up the 100%. If Emergency Pandemic Leave has been exhausted then the optional use of employees holidays can be used to make up to 100%.” Rep, Crane Process Flow Technologies.

Winning for casualised and outsourced staff

The survey shows that, with workplaces closing or operating at much reduced levels, reps achieved notable wins for precarious workers on non-standard contracts or working for third party employers.

At the Houses of Parliament, reps fought for “variable hours” staff to be paid on the basis of hours previously worked. Sessional staff at Kent County Council also won the same right. In Sheffield Hallam University, reps ensured that many hundreds of furloughed zero hours teachers were paid in line with the hours they were expected to work. At other workplaces, reps won deals for contracted-out staff.

“We won 100% pay for furloughed workers who are outsourced. This came about through consistent pressure, but also by getting the students’ union on board. The university is currently under extreme pressure from students, so using students and their representatives can be really instrumental in getting wins.” Rep, a London University.

Often, reps found themselves having to win the right to be placed on furlough in the first place.

“We won that all contractors would be 100% paid in all circumstances. We got most BEIS buildings closed so outsourced workers could go home.” Rep, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“We closed libraries after an orchestrated campaign on the councils FB ...engaging with the public seems to push the council to do the right thing.” Rep, Medway Council.

86% of reps said at least some staff had moved to working from home

Outside of furlough, another major change has been the government encouraging workers who can do so to “work from home”. Our survey shows that this transition has not been easy. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, reps talk of employers coercing staff to come into workplaces when they could be at home. Other reps had to overcome a mistrust of flexible working arrangements in specific teams.

“We have forced local managers to allow non risk-critical staff to work from home. We have forced the employer to ensure that only risk-critical work is carried out, not business as usual and that they issue clear directives to staff. We have forced the employer to increase the supply and availability of PPE.” Rep, London Fire Brigade.

“At the beginning of the lockdown there was one service area that wasn’t letting staff work from home. When I discovered that they had nine staff (social workers, family intervention and office based staff) in one building, myself and another two reps investigated further. We found that several centres were still open and social distancing was a problem. We contacted the assistant director and a local councillor and were able to negotiate that all staff worked from home except those that were on duty. We also negotiated that only one centre would be open with minimum staff to ensure social distancing was taking place.” Rep, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council.

15% of reps surveyed have seen a reduction in working hours

For staff remaining in the workplace during the crisis, finding a way to carry on with operations while also following guidelines on social distancing has been a challenge. Many are working reduced hours to reduce their risk of exposure. Reductions in hours range from 10% to 90% of working time.

Reps have helped negotiate practical and acceptable changes to working patterns. When grounds maintenance workers at one of London’s parks found that their employer wanted to use them as de-facto police to deal with people in breach of government guidelines, they declined and re-negotiated their conditions.

“[Staff] feel a lot more assured coming in to work now. We currently work four days on and four days off doing shifts of five and a half hours. Normally we would work a 37 hour week. We have also successfully negotiated average pay for casual staff not being used who would normally have expected to be given shifts.” Rep, London park.

Only 2% of reps surveyed have so far faced redundancies in their workplace. However, many are concerned that this may become an issue in the future, particularly those in the aviation sector.

Health and safety remains the top concern

• 73% of reps said that lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) was an issue for them

• 66% had issues with physical distancing in the workplace

• 60% state that mental health is a major problem

Unsurprisingly, health and safety issues are the main ongoing concerns for reps during the crisis. As well as the lack of adequate PPE and difficulties maintaining social distancing while at work, the toll that the crisis is taking on the mental health of workers stands out as a major problem. It affects three in five workplaces.

Reps in education, prisons and health in the public sector, and reps in communications and the postal service in the private sector, are facing specific health and safety issues around their ability to provide public services (more on this in next month’s article). In other industries, the tools of the trade can make it difficult to socially distance. A rep at Peel Ports gives the example of the need for “single driver machinery”.

“Engineers working with the public, and going into customer premises, have been worried about shielding their family on returning home, especially those family members in the vulnerable and high risk categories. Gloves and hand sanitisers are in short supply, and some engineers have none. No supplies of masks seem to be available to these key workers.” Rep, BT Brighton.

47% of reps mention cleaning as a problem.

A Rep for West Yorkshire Fire Service says that his employer “refused to deep clean the workplace even after several members tested positive for Covid-19”.

Despite the myriad of issues faced, reps have achieved significant wins in health and safety. Personal risk assessments and mental health policies have been called for and granted, and specific safety parameters agreed at many workplaces. Often reps have stepped in when management has been slow to act.

“We took action under Health and Safety legislation to force management to close the workplace. Social distancing along with a number of other of the above issues will be raised again once any return to work discussions are held.” Rep, SOAS, University of London.

“We manag(ed) to get facemasks for care at home staff before the government updated guidance on this following concerns raised by members. We put the case that staff may turn up at location to find elderly service user showing symptoms, they would then have to leave them all confused while they go back to base to collect a mask leaving the service user stressed – the employer provided a carry case with a mask to be used only when needed.” Rep, a borough council.

“[We achieved] Social distancing for front line workers with members of the public. Information signs were supplied and messages put on facebook to inform and protect public and workers.” Rep, Scottish Water

Health and safety at home

Health and safety is also a problem for homeworkers. Reps mention the unsafe use of display screen equipment and uncomfortable kitchen chairs and tables as examples. However, many have found their employers to be sympathetic to these issues when raised.

“Upon my request, the college ordered 100’s of Chromebooks for use by disadvantaged learners and staff without suitable equipment at home.” Rep at East Leigh College.

“[We won] £250 allowance for reasonable adjustments at home £48 per month for all staff The above paid for due to savings made from travel budgets.” Rep, Citizens Advice.

51% of reps surveyed had issues with sick pay and absence policies

Over half of reps had issues with sickness and leave policies, including the lack of adequate sick pay from day one and the use of sickness triggers for workers forced to self-isolate, shield or stay off ill because of Covid-19.

“Sickness has been focus and we have managed to secure CSP [company sick pay] for our members from Day One when isolating.” Rep, ASDA.

“We got them [the employer] to suspend sickness triggers otherwise everyone would have carried on coming in to work no matter how much they were coughing and spluttering!” Rep, Burney Borough Council.

“We got the Council to write to all contractors about them not putting shielding/self-isolating staff on to SSP [statutory sick pay] but maintaining their usual salary, particularly in care homes.” Rep, London council.

Many reps have also fought for clarity and fairness around annual leave policies so that workers aren’t forced to take it while furloughed.

“We successfully argued that compulsorily using up two days holiday a month while furloughed was silly. This idea was withdrawn.” Rep, voluntary sector.

49% of reps faced issues with homeworking, particularly with childcare

Homeworking for parents has been particularly challenging and reps across the public and private sectors have raised concerns about, and won concessions for, workers with children.

“We have people who are being pressured to work evenings and weekends to make hours up if they can’t work their full hours during their normal working hours (although some adjustments are being made for some people).” Rep, RSA Insurance.

“We have had to negotiate and succeeded in adjustments/flexibility in working hours for staff working at home as they may have caring responsibilities. The employer is currently dependent on our goodwill and is less combative. However, the application of these adjustments is not consistently applied through all our lines of business.” Rep, HMRC.

Other homeworking issues including the use of technology, either to intrusively monitor working time or for video conferencing. After complaints from members, a rep from the aerospace firm MBDA negotiated a reduction in Skype and Zoom meetings.

1 in 4 reps have issues with workload

There are many reps who feel that workload has increased because of the crisis. The issue is particularly prevalent in the higher education sector where it is the subject of an ongoing industrial dispute.

“At my university, we recently won the first local workplace dispute, involving strike action, over workplanning rules and allocation, in any university, ever. So use this time away from campus to plan, as reps and officers, how your union branch can come back to work with a bang and start your own local dispute over workload and other issues.” Rep, Sheffield Hallam University.

1 in 4 reps say they have not been properly consulted on changes to working arrangements

28% of reps say they have not been properly consulted on their employer’s key decisions on staffing during the crisis. However, 89% have felt able to take up other issues with their employer.

The survey shows that there have been a full range of employer responses to reps raising concerns. Several state that there has been a positive relationship through partnership working.

“We at South Tees Hospital NHS Foundation Trust are working together with all the wider trade unions and the management in a Covid-19 Tactical Group.” Rep, South Tees Hospital NHS.

“There is almost daily engagement with the employer on the variety of matters generated by the current emergency.” Rep, Scottish Government.

Others have faced difficulties communicating with their employers, or even downright hostility. An EasyJet rep says that health and safety reps were removed from the main health and safety platform when the crisis started and that time allocated to union work was also removed.

“Harrow Council senior management team dictate and bully the union for concerns raised directly with them, for example they sent out a document stating remove PPE from frontline staff.” Rep, Harrow Council.

“The leadership team has failed to allow any negotiation or consultation periods.” Rep, Prison Service.

“Our biggest problem is communication, we are able to come to agreement with our companies leaders however how that filters down to middle management is a problem, miscommunication to or misunderstanding of what we have agreed causing problems.” Rep, Otis.

After my complaining about the lack of consultation to the managing director and chair of the board, the company is now organising laptops for us to be able to consult via Microsoft teams. If the managers ignore you, go higher!” Rep, Hull Culture and Leisure Limited.

What can you do? Reps give their advice

How to be

• Be honest, prioritise and be realistic

• Resilience and tenacity are key skills

• When dealing with a crisis, be flexible, be prepared to give and take.

• Be “visible” and confident

Communicating with the employer

• Keep regular communication channels open with management and ensure that all reps are on the same page when challenging employers. Raise issues quickly

• Keep asking questions – keep feeding in members’ concerns

• Walk into the directors’ offices.

• Keep at it! They think if they ignore you, you will go away – don’t! Get other unions on board

• Keep notes and emails as evidence, phone log

• Insist on director level involvement at meetings

• Ensure you have regular (at least weekly) meetings

Communicating with other reps and officials

• Get in touch with your branch office

• Get together with other reps online – Zoom meetings, WhatsApp groups etc and share good practice

• Work closely with colleagues from other unions – you’re all facing the same issues.

Communicating with members

• Keep in touch with members using whatever technology you have at hand

• Ensure that members feel confident to provide the union with issues

• Ensure that members are aware of their legal right not to work if their health is in danger

• Circulate details of discussions with management and invite feedback

Do your research

• Conduct a survey so that there is evidence rather than anecdotes

• Keep up to date with government advice and changes and the company’s reaction to them

• Use online tools – surveys, email, text, phone, Facebook to gather information

• Get advice on health and safety regulations

• Read material from your union, the TUC and the Labour Research Department

• Brush up on your knowledge of terms and conditions, company policies and employment law


• Use your union’s digital team to help you pressure your employer on social media

• Name and shame bad management

• Use escalation tactics

Use health and safety reps

• Work through H&S reps. Their legal rights make this a useful approach if employers are being difficult

• Use internal governance to have a voice

Look after yourself

• Take plenty of breaks away from the working environment. Stick to your usual start and finishing times. Be aware of any stressful issues. Do not allow anybody to reduce your family time. Switch off laptops etc when the working day is done

• Take time out for you, use mindfulness techniques and don’t overdo it. If you feel overwhelmed ask for help.

The survey is ongoing and we will publish more of the latest findings in the next issue.

Who answered our survey?

Nearly 500 reps from 22 trade unions.

We surveyed reps from 22 trade unions including: Aslef, BALPA, BFAWU, College of Podiatry, CWU, EIS, FBU, FDA, GMB, NASUWT, NEU, NUJ, PCS, POA, Prospect, RMT, SoR, UCU, UNISON, Unite, and USDAW.

Sector: 70% of respondents are from the public sector, 27% from the private sector, 3% from the voluntary sector

Industry: 24% of respondents come from Education, 23% from “other service activities”, 16.3% from health, 8.5% from public administration, 7.4% from manufacturing and 7.2% from transportation and storage.

Role: The two most common roles performed by respondents were shop steward/workplace rep (58%) and health and safety rep, (42%). Forty % of the total were also branch secretaries.

Working situation: 54% have been working from home, 31% have been working as normal throughout the crisis, 9% are on reduced hours. Only 5% of those who answered have been furloughed.