‘Back to work’ stampede – and may the devil take the hindmost

Reopening schools and workplaces without proper safety measures highlights the government’s true priorities.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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In a state of panic over the mounting bad news for the British economy, the government is trying to stampede employees back into work, without even the ghost of a plan to explain just how any of the essential measures to protect workplace safety are to be enforced upon employers.

The tragic death of a young mother working at London’s Victoria station highlights the perils faced by workers whose jobs involve interaction with the public.

Belly Mujinga developed Covid-19 after being spat at by a member of the public. Her needless death focused attention on the corner-cutting practices engaged in by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR).

The TSSA (the railway union representing office workers and sales staff) drew attention to GTR’s failure to protect its staff, with bosses ordering employees to work on the crowded concourse and clean down ticket machines without providing suitable protective gear, and failing to enforce social distancing.

The union reports that many people working in Victoria station are now fearful for their safety. (Belly Mujinga – TSSA demands for staff safety, TSSA, 14 May 2020)

ONS: low-paid most likely to die

Figures issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) make it clear that it is those whose jobs necessitate physical proximity to members of the public or to their workmates, jobs which are frequently dismissed as ‘unskilled labour’, who are most at risk from the disease.

Men in low-paid manual jobs are four times more likely to die from the virus than are men in professional jobs. Women working as carers are twice as likely to die of the virus as are relatively more privileged women occupying professional and technical roles.

High up in the risk league are jobs like supermarket check-out staff, construction workers, cleaners, security guards, bus drivers and plant operatives – in other words, all the people without whose toil society would soon grind to a halt. (Low-paid workers more likely to die from Covid-19 than higher earners, The Guardian, 11 May 2020)

It is workers like these who, even before the current effort to chivvy everyone back to work kicked in, have routinely been threatened with the sack if they dare to self-isolate in order to shield vulnerable relatives from potential exposure to the disease.

Bosses seek to justify this cruel blackmail by referring to Public Health England guidance stating that staff with vulnerable family members can go to work provided they keep 2m apart at home and at work. But if you work somewhere like a care home or a school, or if your family is crammed into a tiny flat at home, then social distancing goes out of the window.

Unison has highlighted the case of a care worker who is self-isolating to protect his wife, a nurse. He told the union: “I need to work but need to protect my family first. I have a wife, a six-year-old and a new baby on the way. We live together in a one-bedroom flat.

“My managers say I don’t qualify for the furlough scheme, and as a migrant worker I don’t qualify for help from the state, so I have no income. We don’t even qualify for food parcels for my young son.” (Frightened workers self-isolating to protect vulnerable loved ones shouldn’t be punished by Tim Lezard, Unison, 7 May 2020)

Back to school?

Also caught up in the ‘back to work’ stampede now are teachers and pupils, with the government dictating arbitrary deadlines for a return to school without proper consultation with the unions and justified on the back of some very dubious science.

This was highlighted in a joint statement from the teachers’ unions: “Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules. Fifteen children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of four and five-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread.

“While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society.” (Education unions’ statement on the safe reopening of schools, TUC, 13 May 2020)

But the social risk posed by a premature and badly planned mass return to work, across all sectors, weighs lightly for a government that exists to protect the interests, not of society, but of those who sweat profit from the labour of others.