Demands:

  • full sick pay (or paid special leave) from day one for all workers who are following government advice in staying away from work
  • no disciplinary action for following government advice in staying away from work
  • adequate hygiene provision, including access to frequent hand-washing
  • social distancing at work, including withdrawal of duties that involve close contact, and home working where practical
  • the establishment of a monitoring committee including elected workers’ representatives to scrutinise all information and advice and recommend further actions.

Without full sick pay, we are not safe

Official government advice is to self-isolate for seven days if you have a new persistent cough or a fever and for 14 days if a member of your household has these symptoms. Many workers – especially workers in unionised workplaces – are entitled to full sick pay and/or other leave arrangements that mean they can self-isolate without worrying about the financial impact.

But others do not have this right. If these workers take time off, they may only get SSP, £94.25 per week. This less than a third of the net pay of a worker on the minimum wage.

Even if you have sick pay rights yourself, you may well work alongside people who do not – especially if you work in large public service industries such as hospitals, schools and transport.

Workers on zero-hours or outsourced contracts usually have the lowest pay and worst conditions in our workplaces: they are the cleaners, caterers, security staff, delivery drivers etc. If these workers get a cough or a fever, they are put in an impossible situation – either follow government advice and face impoverishment, or struggle through work and potentially infect colleagues and the public with a deadly virus.

These harsh employment practices are undermining the public health strategy, which the government assures us will slow the spread of the virus.

All workers, directly-employed and outsourced, permanent and zero hours, must stand together to demand real action, and equal treatment, from our employers.

What to do

1. Speak with your workmates. Talk to them about their legal rights and discuss the issues. If you are in a unionised workplace, and can pursue this activity through the structures of a recognised union and collective bargaining machinery, great. But we need to act more quickly than many formal structures allow.

2. If you are not part of a trade union, join one now. Any long-term effort to win more rights and power in your workplace requires permanent organisation. If you have a union rep in your workplace probably best to join their union. If not, information on joining a union is here: https://www.tuc.org.uk/join-union

3. Draw up a list of demands. Use the list above and add things that are relevant to where you work. Involve all your workmates in doing this.

4. Elect a health and safety representative. Information on the role and rights of staff health and safety reps here: https://www.hse.gov.uk/involvement/hsrepresentatives.htm

5. Write to management. This could take the form of a letter or a petition. We’ve provided a sample template below; adapt it based on your specific workplace circumstances. Make sure you give your employer a deadline by which to implement your demands.

6. If you face serious and imminent danger, stop work. Do not wait for management to consider the situation – they can do this when you stop work, and will be more likely to do so! The law gives you the right to refuse to work on the basis of a serious and imminent risk. Exactly what form such refusals and stoppages take might vary from workplace to workplace, but it could involve a straightforward refusal to work at all until management meet demands to minimise risk. In this case, explain your action to other workmates and encourage them to join you.

Refusing to work on safety grounds

Under Regulation 8 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), and Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act (1996), all workers have a right to refuse work on health and safety grounds, without victimisation or loss or pay, if they perceive there is a ‘serious and imminent risk’. More on this here.

We believe that there are good grounds to perceive serious and imminent risk if, for example:

  • there are insufficient hygiene facilities in your workplace eg. lack of access to soap and water; inadequate alternative provision for mobile workers
  • your work involves close contact with other people
  • you are working alongside people who may be infected but have come to work because they would lose vital income or face disciplinary action if they did not

It can work

In early March, following pressure from the local branch of Unison, Lambeth Council agreed to ensure full pay for zero hour contract workers who self-isolate or take sick leave. If Lambeth Council can do, after a decade of austerity, why can’t every employer?

Since then many other employers have agreed these rights including large employers like the NHS and Civil Service. Many workers have organised stoppages and walk-outs on health and safety grounds and won quick results. See here for list of places where we have already won.

Spread the word

If you take this action, let other people, especially other workers in your industry, know you’re doing it, and especially if you get results. Use our contact page to let us know what you are doing – we have a network of experienced trade unionists who can offer advice and support and we can use this website to publicise your action.

What next

If your management continues to refuse to budge, speak to your union about formalising your action into a dispute. Spreading the word about your action and encouraging social media pressure on your employer can also add to the impact of what you’re doing.

In the longer term, continue to press demands for equal treatment and conditions. This crisis clearly highlights the exploitative and unjust nature of zero-hours contracts, outsourcing, and other employment practises that divide workers. All workers should be directly employed, with access to the same benefits and conditions.

Template letter to your boss

To [THE BOSS]
As workers in [WORKPLACE] who are members of [TRADE UNION], we are writing to demand that you, our employer, take all necessary precautions to minimise risk during the Covid-19 pandemic. Immediately we are concerned that some workmates, such as those on zero-hour and outsourced contracts, cannot afford to self-isolate, as they may only receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), if that. This means that these workers are economically prevented from carrying out public health instructions and could therefore put themselves and others at greater risk.

We therefore demand that all workers in [WORKPLACE], whether directly-employed or outsourced and regardless of contractual status, are guaranteed full pay from day one of any self-isolation or sickness absence. This may involve you as an employer instructing the holders of any outsourced contract to pay full pay to their employees, or underwriting such payments yourself.

Further, we demand the following measures to minimise risk:
[add demands specific to your workplace, which may include:]
more frequent breaks for hand-washing
adequate supplies of soap, water, etc
appropriate hand-cleaning materials for mobile workers
suspension of work tasks involving contact eg. cash payments

To ensure that the workplace continues to take up-to-date appropriate act, we ask you to establish a monitoring committee including trade union representatives, which will have access to all data, information and advice, and which can recommend action.

We demand that you take these measures is taken as soon as possible, and within no more than five days.

Should we come to believe that we are in serious and imminent danger, we will exercise our legal right to withdraw from work.

Yours,[COLLECT SIGNATURES ON THE LETTER]

Template letter to your management: refusal to work on the grounds of health and safety concerns

To [THE BOSS]
I am concerned for the safety of myself and others, as I believe that I am in serious and imminent danger of coronavirus infection due to the lack of adequate safety measures in my workplace. Specifically, I face serious and imminent danger from:

-contact with workers attending work while ill or infectious because they are not receiving full sick pay or paid special leave and can not afford to stay off work
-contact with workers attending work while ill or infectious because they face disciplinary action if they follow government advice and stay off work
-lack of adequate access to hand-cleaning facilities
-work duties involving close contact with persons who may be infectious eg. taking cash payments
[make these specific to your working conditions]

You have a duty to provide me with a safe workplace and I ask that you assure me that the arrangements you have in place adequately protect my safety and the safety of others for whom I am responsible.

Until I receive such assurance, and in line with my legal right under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, I am refusing to carry out my work [or specified parts of my work] and/or I am withdrawing from the workplace which I believe to be unsafe.

Please initiate the company’s procedures for protection against serious and imminent danger and addressing my concerns.

Yours

[YOUR NAME]

This advice was originally published at https://www.workersliberty.org/covid-action