Pay remit raises automation threat

Automation Software Technology Process System Business concept

The Cabinet Office has published its pay remit for the civil service. As expected, civil service pay is being held below inflation, with departments allowed to award between 1.5 and 2.5%. This is yet again a kick in the teeth for low paid PCS members.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the failure of this government to offer anything close to an acceptable pay award after a decade of austerity. Though, with a two year pay freeze in the public sector and significant tax rises for the lowest paid working class people forming part of their leaked post-COVID recovery plans, we also shouldn’t be surprised if they try to frame this as an act of generosity ahead of the ‘necessary’ pain to come.

What is key in this year’s pay remit, however, is this:

“Departments paying an average award of more than 2% and up to 2.5% must demonstrate tangible outcomes based plans, with milestones, for progress against delivery of key long term priorities such as workforce transformation and improvements, including through automation, location strategy and addressing pay anomalies.”

What this translates to is a pay award at the higher end of the remit range must be paid for in jobs.

We have already seen that the government wants to use pay restraint as the stick to force changes to terms and conditions on workers. Departments such as HMRC continue to enthusiastically promise this at every turn. We also know that job cuts are on the horizon with the location strategies in HMRC, DWP and Ministry of Justice in particular.

However, alongside home working, the other big boom in the civil service has been automation. The employer will come out of the pandemic with a far clearer picture of what work can be done without us, and what work can be done with less of us.

The supposed gratitude for key workers through this crisis will not mitigate the attacks to come. However, we can hope that the naked contradiction between the spectacle of applause and veneration and the clear contempt when it comes to pay policy will radicalise more workers and make them realise that there are sides – and that the government and the employer are not on theirs.

If you are a civil servant and not a member of PCS, you should join today. Don’t’ stop there – organise your workmate and be ready for a fight. The success of this attack is wholly dependent on how the workforce responds.

Report from the NEC on 13 May

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The PCS National Executive Committee met on Wednesday 13 May to debate the union’s approach to the prospect of members returning to the office following the messages put out by the government.

The government announcement

A lot of media outlets and other commentators have already noted the confusion that Boris Johnson’s announcement has sewn. There’s a good reason to feel that this is deliberate, as it follows on from the shift whereby those previously demanding punitive action if somebody sat on the grass during their daily walk were now taking part in street parties and spectacle for VE Day. This change in the public mood, and the media portrayal of the unions as “wreckers” for wanting to protect members, suggests the propaganda war we’re up against when trying to protect the health, safety and welfare of members.

For PCS members, the major cause of concern was that head of the civil service Mark Sedwill’s message echoed that of Boris Johnson and suggested an imminent return to the workplace for all. Those members who have lost loved ones will also have had to content with Sedwill’s ghoulishly cheerful declaration that ‘the lockdown has worked.’

Fortunately, the NEC heard that despite these messages a meeting between the Cabinet Office and unions with collective agreements with civil service employers yesterday confirmed that they have no plans to move people back to workplaces in the short-term. PCS had given them an ultimatum that without such confirmation we would tell our members that the status-quo continues.

The perspectives of the TUC unions

The General Secretary gave a report back from the TUC executive where he pushed the union’s opposition to lifting of the lock-down and forcing workers back to workplaces. The response from the big unions such as Unite and GMB was predictably poor. Unison responded that “without a dynamic economy there will be no public services,” which is an extremely conservative viewpoint that frames the health, safety and welfare of workers and the services upon which the working class and society rely as subservient to the demands of capitalism.

Whilst we have many reasons to disagree with Mark Serwotka, it seems he is one of the few voices opposing this dross from the left. The unions with similar perspectives (albeit for different reasons) are the likes of the RMT, NEU, and POA – essentially, the members of the Trade Union Coordinating Group.

Our proposals to the NEC

As the meeting with the Cabinet Office was the day before the NEC, the Independent Left members on the executive weren’t in a position to amend the emergency paper which was submitted just before the meeting.

The recommendations that came with the paper were in response to the better position from the Cabinet Office and were essentially a continuation of the existing position that no member should return to the workplace and keeping members informed of the latest position and their individual rights while not committing us to a particular strategy.

Our proposals, built around how to respond in the worst-case scenario of a mass return to work, were as follows:

1. That the NEC reaffirms the union’s position that no member currently away from the workplace (whether working at home or otherwise absent) should be asked to return.

2. That the NEC reinforces that message by:

  • Having Groups and National Branches broadcast it through their own communication channels.
  • Writing to the heads of the civil service to reaffirm our position.
  • Writing to the leaders of the devolved governments asking that they intervene to prevent the UK Civil Service breaking their national lockdowns.
  • Publicising the above correspondence.
  • Advising all members that, if they are encouraged to return to work, they contact their local union rep or the union’s Covid-19 hotline.

3. In the event that the Cabinet Office – or any other employer (e.g. outsourcing companies, agencies, etc) refuses PCS’s position and attempts to enforce a mass return to work, the union takes the following actions:

  • A template letter is drafted for members to send if they are told to report to the workplace, citing their rights under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 – and the law or policy position of the devolved nation where a member lives and/or working in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
  • Groups and national branches are asked to coordinate inspections across their areas to identify the risks (crowded public transport, unsuitability of buildings for social distancing measures, lack of PPE for facilities workers, etc) in order to issue Union Inspection Notices in response to members being forced to return to work.
  • Members are provided with the UINs, advice on their legal rights, and the template letters with instructions based upon the union’s assessment of the risks in attending their workplace.
  • Work with local safety reps and organisers to ensure that any refusal to attend work is done on a collective basis with as much protection as possible rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves based only on the letter of the law and possible recourse at Employment Tribunal.

4. That the NEC highlights the disproportionate risk and impact upon BAME members of any reduction in lockdown measures and incorporates this into our political and campaigning activity.

5. That we ensure that facilities management workers are taken into account in PCS negotiations and actions at all levels.

It was broadly agreed that proposals 1, 2, 4 and 5 were covered by the union’s actions and/or overtaken by events. In relation to point 4 and 5, it is worth noting that a lot of the disproportionate risk and impact BAME members face from Covid-19 is directly connected to the impact of the crisis on outsourced and facilities management workers, as these workers who face the highest risk are far more likely to be BAME whilst the senior civil servants most able to comfortably stay at home without financial or job implications are overwhelmingly white.

Proposal 3 of course remained key, as there not only do we have to address the response of the worst employers in the interim, particularly outsourcing companies who are looking for ways out of the protocols laid down by the Cabinet Office, but we also need to prepare for the possibility of the Cabinet Office’s own position shifting in the mid-term.

The proposal was lost on the usual factional lines, with the Left Unity majority voting against whilst their former comrades who split to form the Broad Left Network voted with us.

Section 44 and collective union action

The debate at the NEC reflected a wider debate in the union movement and beyond about the utility of Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion on social media in particular seems to treat this right as a “magic bullet,” when the reality is not so straight forward. One website in particular is downright conspiratorial, suggesting that there is an effort to prevent the public knowing about this right, and ignoring that like all employment rights it doesn’t actually shield you from negative consequences but only allows you to take the matter to an Employment Tribunal after those consequences (such as being sacked or losing pay) have already happened.

The clear alternative to this approach is trade union organisation. The rights under Section 44 should be seen not as a panacea but as a tool we can use as part of our collective union activity. The duties imposed on management and functions of safety representatives afforded in broader health and safety legislation allow us to undertake inspections, identify risks and advise members of the appropriate course of action, including utilising the right under Section 44 where appropriate. This should, of course, go hand in hand with wider organisational and campaigning activity to bring pressure to bear on the employer.

The main argument against the IL proposals was that collectivising the Section 44 right in this way would be seen as a unofficial industrial action, potentially stripping members of their protections under legislation and resulting in significant claims against the union.

Mark Serwotka when responding to the debate essentially admitted that we don’t have the strength or membership confidence to break the union laws, but that if comrades wanted that debate then it should be honestly put. The problem with this, of course, is that the organisational strength and membership confidence to take unofficial action requires rank and file organising activity and cannot be artificially produced from a debate amongst the leadership. Our very mild proposals were made not to dishonestly broach the subject of unofficial action but in recognition of our very clear limitations in that regard as things stand.

The debate is still out about interpretation of the law, but in PCS at least the general mood is that anything bolder than informing members of their rights is unlawful and as such either shouldn’t be done at all or we don’t have the strength to do so.

Unfortunately, what this translated into was a full-time officer using the introduction of a Zoom meeting for activists to tell them what the union couldn’t do regarding section 44. “The union won’t do anything that could be considered encouraging collective action” and the General Secretary telling members the NEC don’t support a national ballot for action.

This, of course, leaves wide open the question of what we can do. It also begs the question, if we aren’t able to assert our collective strength at a time when we have never had more potential leverage, of how effective our response will be to the further wave of brutal austerity set to follow the current pandemic.

COVID- 19 in Chile: Free all political prisoners now!

89495436_144777357003257_5729098756360503296_nPlease consider passing a motion at branch meetings, sending an email/letter as below and circulating this further in the union and beyond.

Model letter/email

Chilean Embassy in London: embachile@embachile.co.uk

Consulate:   londres@consulado.gob.cl

Chilean Judiciary: jabbott@minpublico.cl

Address to:

Mr. Sebastián Piñera Echeñique , President of the Republic of Chile

Mr. Jorge Abott Charme National Prosecutor of the Public Ministry

The undersigned members of the (union, party, entity, individual)

__________________________________________

We are aware of the preventive detention of 2,500 political prisoners in Chile.  According to all the reports of the health authorities if overcrowding is not avoided and basic sanitary measures are not strictly followed, we will have to regret many deaths. The report of the Judicial Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Chile states that overcrowding of prisons has become a time bomb.

We ask that you urgently release them all political prisoners who are currently in preventive detention, and instruct that they continue to comply with the Precautionary Measure in their homes with their families, in order to save lives.

Sincerely etc

Name etc.

—————————————————————————————————————-

 Background

Despite the fact that the pandemic slowed the process of the recent street mobilisation in Chile, the political and social contradictions continue to exist. One of the main ones is that of political prisoners who number 2,500 in preventive jail, that is, they have not been convicted of any crime, but the Chilean State has arbitrarily decided to keep them in prison as they consider them “dangerous for society”.

There is a blockade in the mass media. We must counter this blockade. Today, the thousands of families and activists who refuse to accept prison and the danger of contagion are in an isolated battle against the Chilean state as a whole. The left in general have forgotten the thousands of political prisoners.

We must continue to defend the Chilean labour movement. We cannot forget that the imprisonment of more than 2,500 activists is the product of facing one of the most bloodthirsty, repressive apparatuses in Latin America, which have already killed more than 30 comrades and mutilated more than 400 with shots in the eyes.

Although our focus here is a campaign for Chilean prisoners, we cannot lose sight of the fact that it is part of a general campaign for the freedom of political prisoners and the cessation of persecution throughout the world.

The coronavirus has already started spread in the prisons. There are several cases in the Puente Alto prison and also in the San Miguel women’s prison. This is very serious because the expansion of the virus in the confinement situation of prisons can be very rapid, and there are no health conditions to face an epidemic of cases. There have been protests by prisoners in some of the cells of the Santiago 1 prison, where they refuse to eat the food from the prison and demand that they let food from their relatives enter and send them home from prison.

The government, together with the majority of the parliament, proposed a law to change those aged over 75 who have not committed “serious” crimes to house arrest. This sparked a debate with the far right sectors of parliament demanding that the measures also be for those convicted of human rights crimes. A process was recently started to free 17 prisoners accused of committing human rights crimes.

The Organisation of Family and Friends of Political Prisoners (OFAPP) have raised the following demands:

  • That the State of Chile, placing above all the protection of human life, change immediately the precautionary measure of Preventive Prison to total House Arrest for all Political Prisoners of the Revolt. The President of the Republic, given the state of emergency entering the country, has the power to manage a bill that allows the change of precautionary measures.
  • We demand that the powers of the State (executive, judicial and legislative) contribute in an effective and timely manner so that the Political Prisoners comply with the investigation period of their judicial processes in their homes, which also contributes to the reduction of overcrowding levels of the penitentiary facilities.
  • We demand that national and international human rights organisations and institutions demonstrate and publicly propose measures that protect the lives of political prisoners regarding the imminent contagion with the Covid-19 virus.
  • In this way, the Association of Relatives and Friends of Political Prisoners (OFAPP), makes the State of Chile directly responsible for the imminent risk to which our family and friends are exposed. We strongly express our just concern for the lives of the Political Prisoners who are in the country’s prisons.

 

 

Reinstate Percy Now!

image-assetPercy is a cleaner at King’s college with 5 years on the job, and a UVW executive committee member, who’s been sacked after a disciplinary hearing he refused to attend due to observing the government’s social distancing guidelines but which King’s College proceeded with anyway in his absence without even letting him know or inviting him to attend via phone.

The hearing would have had 8 people cramped together in a small room in complete disregard of the government’s instructions about social distancing.

Percy has explained the reaons for not attending and asked for the decision to be overturned and the hearing to be reconvened via phone or in person after Lockdown.

However, King’s have scandalously refused this request and have insisted on upholding his dismissal which now leaves Percy out of work and out of pocket in the middle of a pandemic!

He will formally appeal but it could take months to hear and deliver an outcome. We will also take King’s to tribunal but that could take over a year.

This is utterly shameless conduct by King’s HR team.

They need to be held to account.

Everyone deserves the right to a fair hearing and should not have that right denied them for respecting the government’s public health guidelines about social distancing.

Text from UVW Twitter

Please write to Christopher Wellcome as below at the following address telling him to reinstate Percy and circulate this notice in the union and beyond:

Model email


To: Christopher.welcome@kcl.ac.uk
Subject: Reinstate Percy Now

Dear Mr Wellcome,

I am writing on behalf of [union/branch/organisation] to register our dismay about the dismissal of Percy, a member of the cleaning staff at King’s College London. 

As we understand it, King’s have summarily dismissed Percy following his non-attendance at a disciplinary hearing. Some questions need to be answered with urgency:

1)        Why was King’s attempting to hold a disciplinary meeting in the first place? In the midst of an epidemic, frontline workers like cleaning staff should be offered unconditional support and solidarity, not faced with punitive disciplinary action.

2)        What material conditions have been put in place to ensure the health and wellbeing of the cleaning staff at King’s College London? We note with extreme concern that by the 14th March – when all college buildings were still operational – there were at least five confirmed cases at King’s.

3)        Given the presence of covid-19 among the community at King’s, why didn’t the disciplinary meeting conform to social distancing guidelines? Why weren’t alternatives put in place, for example to hold the meeting via phone?

This failure of communication indicates to us a broader failure of communication around the covid-19 outbreak. We understand that members of staff at Kings– from cleaners to lecturers – have been justifiably alarmed about their working conditions. To hold a meeting in Percy’s absence and to terminate his contract is at the least disrespectful, and in the current climate strikes us as cruel and entirely unnecessary.

We note here that Percy was a prominent campaigner for the movement of the cleaning staff to become in-house employees of King’s. To be rewarded like this for his efforts reflects extremely badly on the University. The trade union movement are publicising Percy’s case and stand in solidarity with him and his colleagues.

We urge you to reinstate Percy with immediate effect.

Sincerely,

On behalf of [union/branch/organisation]

Office Closures impact DWP’s COVID-19 response

A member of PCS Independent Left who is active in DWP writes about the need to use the COVID-19 crisis to challenge cuts and closures.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that there is very little slack in the DWP and its ability to respond to such crises is thrown into sharp relief. This isn’t any wonder when you consider that the department’s budget has been cut from £9.1 billion in 2009-10 to £6.1 billion in 2019-20.

Also the flexible nature of the UK economy, zero hours contracts, millions of workers categorized as self-employed, precarious work etc, has meant employers have dodged their responsibilities to pay their employees sick pay and endangered all of us by forcing people that do not need to go to work, to go, otherwise they may have no money to feed themselves and their families.

Almost an extra 1 million claims to Universal Credit were made in the first two weeks of the crisis. Normally 4,000 claims are made each day. DWP has started to recruit in order to deal with the claims. We are told that staffing will be increased by roughly 10%. East London is one of the areas that has been given permission to go first at it has seen the greatest impact in terms of claims and staff going off.

DWP has recently closed the Balham Processing centre which housed 228 staff.

These staff could have helped process the outstanding claims. Management are pressing ahead with the closure of the Stratford, Hackney and Watford processing centres, meaning there will be no Universal Credit processing centres in London.

Management are proposing to site the new staff in Jobcentres, despite the fact that PCS has raised concerns about overcrowding and social distancing, and they are refusing to post new staff to benefit centres, where there is more space. The reason for this? They are still planning to go ahead with the closures so if they put new staff in the centres and then close them, that is more staff they will have to re-deploy or pay redundancy.

London regional officials have raised this matter with the DWP Group office only to be told it has already been raised with the employer. We are not told what the employers’ response is and members have not been informed that this has been raised. This is an issue PCS needs to go on the offensive about. When DWP and the Government tell us we are key workers, they are right. The case for more service centres to cope precisely with this sort of an emergency will be a very easy one to make post-crisis.

PCS pushes HSE over COVID-19 enforcement

A PCS Independent Left activist discusses the work being done to pressure the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.

Should HSE be using the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) to enforce on COVID-19 risks in the workplace?

YES, we believe it should.

In 2003 HSE published guidance on controlling the risks of infection at work, which can be found here.  Specifically, at paragraph 6 the document states:

‘Although your employees may well pick up infections from workmates (just as they might from their friends and family outside work) – these infections are not your responsibility under health and safety law. This is because the infection is just as likely to be caught outside the workplace as in it.’

This guidance was written for circumstances where government had not imposed restrictions on movement.

The current government restrictions on movement of individuals mean that when followed the infection is now less likely to be caught outside the workplace.  That is the whole point of the new restrictions.

HSWA provides for enforcement on the basis of exposure to risk, not on the basis of any actual harm, or any causal link between the risk and the harm.  This is particularly true when pursuing health related risks such as infections, legionella or hand arm vibration.

HSE enforces in cases where a risk is not created by the workplace, but where the nature of the workplace increases the risk of exposure.  For instance, exposure to sunlight for workers in the construction and agricultural sectors where the conduct of the business means workers have to work outside. In this current situation, it is the way that the employer organises the work that creates the risk: lack of provision of hand washing facilities that are adequate for this situation, inadequate cleaning regimes, and poor arrangements for travel to sites, use of changing rooms and mess facilities to allow distancing. Where that risk can be managed, we can have no objection from a HSWA perspective, and whether the undertaking is essential or not is a public health matter.

There has been a lot of external noise on this issue from politicians, journalists and trade unions, including a letter to the HSE from the STUC.

PCS HSE National branch along with Prospect and FDA have tried to discuss this with HSE.  A joint letter sent from all three unions to HSE on 25 March 2020 and a further letter was sent 30 March 2020.

Attending workplaces increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19, especially whilst workers in non-essential industry continue to be forced to use crowded public transport and then work at close proximity on building sites, in factories and in call centres.

That brings the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace legitimately within scope of HSWA and HSE’s enforcement remit and PCS must keep pushing for action.