Workplaces in the UK with five or more workers must have a Covid-19 Risk Assessment. https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/working-safely/risk-assessment.htm The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is clear about this. An employer must ensure that they take measures to ensure that their workers have a safe environment to work in. In Gov UK advice the word “must” means that there is a statutory obligation, whereas “should” means that it is only a recommendation. It is a legal requirement, therefore, for a workplace to have a Covid-19 Risk Assessment. Why has such an important health and safety measure been largely ignored?
We at No Safety No Work have argued from the get-go that a Covid-19 Risk Assessment is a prerequisite for any safe return to the workplace. Unfortunately, the HSE is underfunded and there have been NO prosecutions for Covid-19 health and safety infringements. Since 2010, the HSE has not had the wherewithal to enforce health and safety regulations and the situation has got worse under Pandemic conditions. In September 2020, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) carried out an audit to find out how many workplaces had carried out Covid-19 Risk Assessments. Bear in mind that it was in September 2020 that it became obvious that the UK was at risk from a “mutant strain” (Matt Hancock – Health Secretary) and that this variant was both more infectious and deadly. The TUC Audit found that less than half of UK workplaces had carried out a Covid-19 Risk Assessment. https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/many-uk-workplaces-still-not-covid-secure-tuc-poll-reveals
Of course, since September 2020 Unions have been demanding that new Covid-19 Risk Assessments needed to be carried out. These needed to take account of new, Covid variants which were more infectious as well as the consensus among scientific experts that Covid-19 was an air borne infection. The National Education Union (NEU) made this a major demand and gave individual members the means to refuse work if they considered that their workplace was unsafe.
Why then are Covid-19 Risk Assessments so thin on the ground?
- Precarious Working Conditions – Too many essential workers have precarious employment arrangements. They are agency workers or zero hour contract workers. They know that if they ask awkward questions about health and safety in the workplace, then they are unlikely to be offered work. They may also be “foreign nationals” with English as a second language and worried about their “right to remain”. They don’t feel confident enough to insist upon safe working conditions which comply with the law.
- Weak and Ineffectual Trade Unions – The TUC Unions, those which are affiliated to the Labour Party, are often accused of being co-managers of exploitation. They have a too cosy relationship with employers and don’t want to “make waves” which could sour relationships which serve the interests of both employers and paid union officers and workplace representatives. What lies at the bottom of this are “Recognition Agreements”, as well as laziness. If a union has a recognition agreement with an employer, then the union and its officers become, in effect, part of the employer’s management team and co-managers of exploitation. A Recognition Agreement also allows for workplace union representatives. A Workplace Rep does get some privileges and can become part of a workplace’s management team. Recognition Agreements include a clause which allows the employer a role in deciding who the Workplace Representative is. A Rep who does their job properly, therefore, is unlikely to get the approval of an employer. A Rep is there to help the boss get the job done, not to stop the job getting done. Paid, Union Officers are also problematic. For them, working for a union is just a career. They have been working remotely pretty much throughout the pandemic. They earn good money and have a boss mentality. The more you earn, the less risk you take is a good way of summing up how the pandemic has affected workers. That is true of paid, union officers. The author was present at a planning meeting for a TUC Union Zoom Event. There were three paid, union officers at the video conference meeting during “working hours” on salaries above £40,000 a year. One couldn’t help thinking that those paid officers would be serving their members’ interests more effectively if they had been going around sites where they had members ensuring the Covid-19 Risk Assessments had taken place. They could even have been attempting to recruit members at non unionised workplaces. Instead they preach to the converted from the safety of their own homes. The people who pay union bosses’ salaries are “risking their necks” while union officers stay at home “talking the talk”.
We at No Safety No Work have been consistently arguing that workers have to do it for themselves. Even if you work in a workplace where a union has a recognition agreement with the boss, you cannot leave everything up to the Workplace Rep. It is we, the Working Class, who have to chivvy our Workplace Union Reps to carry out their duties and to insist that paid officers earn their salaries. You can do this by being an active member of your union and asking the question: has the union engaged with drawing up a Covid-19 Risk Assessment and can we see it? If that does not work, then we must self-organise. Self-organisation is already happening among NHS health care workers. They do not trust their Unions to get things done, either on site or remotely, and have been getting changes made to workplace health and safety themselves.
Workers without guaranteed hours, though, have a far more difficult task when it comes to self-organisation. We do not recommend that you even attempt to self-organise until you have spoken to an experienced workplace organiser.
If you need help with how to get your Union to do what you pay them to do or how to self-organise, get in touch.