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.

PCS National Elections – Nominate Independent Left

As we enter PCS’s Annual General Meeting season, we are asking members and supporters to nominate PCS Independent Left candidates at their AGM.

Our candidates are as follows:

President
Bev Laidlaw, DWP

Vice-Presidents
Bryan Carlsen, HSE
Phil Dickens, HMRC
Chris Marks, DWP
Paulette Romain, DfT

NEC
Tom Bishell, DWP; Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Ralph Corrigan, PSg
Phil Dickens, R&C; Chris Hickey, MHCLG; Karen Johnson, MHCLG
Bev Laidlaw, DWP; Charlie McDonald, DWP; Chris Marks, DWP
Paulette Romain, DfT; Gilaine Young, Highways

You can download a leaflet to print and distribute in support of our nominations here.

John Moloney: First 12 Weeks

Having been elected as Assistant General Secretary earlier this year, John Moloney formally took up post on 1 July. In line with his election pledge, he donates most of his salary to the union’s Fighting Fund and only takes a worker’s wage. This report covers some of the work he has been doing whilst in receipt of that wage.

Government Estates Strategy (GES)

The GES is going to have an enormous impact upon our union, whether we like it or not. The government wants to dramatically reduce the size of its estate and co-locate Departments in regional Hubs, which presents a broad set of challenges for PCS.

John has made a number of pushes since taking up office to re-establish regular meetings with the Cabinet Office over the GES, which haven’t happened for more than a year. He has also written to the Government Property Agency, the body which will ultimately control all areas of the Estate, to set out the terms on which PCS expects to engage with them, and used Freedom of Information requests in order to map out what the Estate is likely to look like when the GES comes to fruition.

This is only a snapshot, but there is much more to be done. This will include getting to grips with how our structures adapt to the organisational challenges of multi-occupied sites, as well as organising a broader challenge to the GES itself. However, we believe that positive progress is starting to be made and we now have something to build upon.

Health and Safety

PCS’s national health and safety structures have been moribund for several years. John is aiming to revive them, and a health and safety culture more broadly, and work on this has begun in earnest with endorsement from the NEC. John’s office has set up a PCS Facebook page for Health and Safety reps, or PCS reps interested in Health and Safety issues, to begin to engage with our structures and improve communications. They will also establish a quarterly H&S bulletin with engagement from reps determining and building content over time. There will be a national health and safety inspection week in early 2020 – to be used to coordinate inspections, develop best practice, highlight issues and provide guidance for branches, and a national Health and Safety seminar for 28th March 2020.

The NEC will be re-engaging the Cabinet Office concerning the “Whitehall Studies.” These studies show that there is an inverse relationship between grade and health. In broad terms this means the lower the grade, on average the higher the sick rate and death rate. Thus, seemingly neutral measures such as sick trigger points will disproportionately impact the lower grades. The same is true for pension age changes.

John will seek to ensure that there be a health, safety and welfare work stream as part of the new consultation arrangements concerning the GES. He will consult with groups and safety reps to produce model agreements/common aims on health and safety to take to the employer nationally. He will also explore with the Labour front bench draft agreements on national policies concerning health and safety and workers’ rights.

Facilities Management Workers

A big area of work for the union is outsourced Facilities Management (FM) workers on the Government Estate, such as cleaners, caterers, porters, security and so on. The plight of these workers has been pushed into the spotlight by the excellent work that has led to high-profile disputes at HMRC on Merseyside and BEIS and the FCO in London.

John was keen from the start to not impose a strategy from the top down on this area. As such, the papers that have gone to the NEC have been put together in consultation with the lay activists directly involved in this work, whilst the strategy itself was the result of an open discussion by the NEC rather than a closed debate around a pre-determined approach.

The union is extremely limited in that the full-time resources for this area are, frankly, nil. However, as the work on the ground will ultimately fall to branch activists, this does force the NEC to focus on how they develop and extend that lay resource and infrastructure, which will if done right put PCS in a better position.

Commercial Sector

John also has responsibility for PCS’s Commercial Sector. Broadly speaking, this means the big private companies which provide IT and other support to the Government and its Departments. He has opened up a dialogue with the Commercial Sector about the ways in which they believe that their structure and their relationship to the wider union needs to change, in the hopes that this is something he can ask the NEC to look at.

Working with Mark Serwotka

Since taking up post John has met with Mark, as the incumbent General Secretary, every week. He continues to raise ideas to him and work with him as constructively as possible. This isn’t just because he has known Mark for several decades; it is how he believes the business of the union should be conducted.

During the AGS election campaign, which in some quarters ran the better part of a year, it became apparent that certain parts of the union’s full-time apparatus could not work together. This is, frankly, a nonsense that runs counter to any notion of a rational union. The full-time apparatus exists to serve the lay structures and, primarily, the membership. It cannot do that if it is at war with itself.

John stood for the AGS position as a member of the PCS Independent Left (IL). He remains a member of the IL and as such will be supporting Bev Laidlaw in the General Secretary election. This doesn’t mean that he won’t work with or talk to Mark or, hopefully, vice versa, because that isn’t good for our membership. If asked to choose between a vibrant union democracy where all positions are contested freely and a union where representatives and officials are able to get on and work together, the correct answer is that any rational union is capable of both.

Ways to Improve Our Union

Since taking up office, John hasn’t created an earthquake. However, he has helped to shift the conversation about how our union is run and to improve things where he is able. How we improve our union is a conversation many lay activists are, rightly, engaged in. One of the things that John wants to define his time in post is that he is always open to discussing such ideas, and will do what he can to raise and advance them within the union structure.

Bev Laidlaw for PCS General Secretary

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Bev Laidlaw is the Independent Left candidate for General Secretary of PCS in the upcoming union election.

Bev is an experienced lay activist who currently sits on both the DWP Group Executive Committee and the union’s National Executive Committee. She is standing on a platform of:

  • A return to national pay and terms and conditions
  • Robust opposition to job cuts and office closures
  • Equality at the heart of organising and bargaining
  • Rebuilding the union into a serious fighting force
  • A workers’ representative on a worker’s wage
  • Elected full time officials and transparent PCS structures
  • A union that punches above its weight in politics

Find out more by reading Bev’s manifesto here.

Volunteer

As with any union campaign, the key to winning in this election isn’t a website or social media, but face to face contact with members on the ground in workplaces. If you agree with what this campaign stands for, then please get in touch and volunteer to help.

Volunteer to help Bev’s campaign here.

Donate

This campaign doesn’t have the machinery of the union at its disposal. In order to fund campaign activities such as printing leaflets, attending hustings, etc, we rely on the generous donations of those who believe in what we’re trying to achieve.

All donations are gratefully received. Donations received and spending from them will be properly accounted, and any excess funds at the end of the campaign will go to the PCS Fighting Fund.

Donate via Go Fund Me here.

Donate via PayPal here.

John Moloney: I will only take a workers’ wage

I have now signed a contract with the PCS and have become an employee of the union from the 1 July. As such I am entitled to a salary of £69,466 a year (£5,788 a month).

As part of my election platform though, I promised not to take the full AGS salary but only take home the wage of a DWP Executive Officer (EO) working in London.

EO is the most common grade in the Civil Service; DWP is the biggest part of the Service and I work in London. Therefore it seems to me that the EO salary is a representative wage of members in the union. Further, in my opinion it is a workers’ wage.

I asked the union only to be paid this but PCS stated that I had to take the full money. Therefore I am donating the difference between the AGS net pay and EO net pay to the fighting fund.

According to tax calculators having a gross monthly salary of £5,788 should mean earning £4,069 net.

DWP London EO salary is £30,303. According to the same calculators this leaves £2,012 net. Therefore I will be giving back £2,057 a month to the PCS; 24,684 a year.

To put this into context, the recent week long strike by BEIS cleaners/catering staff cost the union approx £20,000 in strike pay.

I have opted out of the PCS pension fund. If I am not taking the full wage, it seemed wrong to me to get the indirect benefit of the full salary through the pension scheme. I have decades of reckonable service in a Civil Service pension so I am lucky compared to most. I can well understand therefore someone with much less pension service opting into the PCS pension scheme.

It is my intention to publish my end of July wage slip and my standing order to the Fighting Fund, so proving that I have fulfilled my pledge. I will ensure that in the annual accounts, my contribution to the FF is shown (rank does have some privileges).

I must stress that my stance on the AGS wage is not that of a hair shirt moralist; it is political. During the five years of my contract, my take home will only increase in line with that of DWP London EOs. Poor pay awards will hit me in the same way as members. Therefore there will be a real organic link between my material well being and that of members. So at least in the pay sense, I can say I am one with the members and have no separate material interest to them.

John Moloney

PCS Assistant General Secretary (in a personal capacity)

Building Environmentalism into Workplace Struggle

With catastrophic climate change to the world today, the term “climate emergency” has entered common use. The environmental crisis continues to grow day by day, and whilst the responses of our and other governments continue to be woefully inadequate, the movement demanding action continues to grow.

For the trade union movement, the question continues to be how we can use our industrial muscle in this battle. This is particularly relevant given the successive global climate strikes by school age children, and the question now being asked of how we can build towards climate strikes by workers.

A Crisis of Capitalism

The first thing that needs to be recognised is that the environmental crisis is fundamentally a crisis of capitalism. The position we find ourselves in, both in terms of how much we have already contributed to climate change and of the resistance to serious action to reverse course, both have their roots in a system built around unrelenting economic growth.

Capitalism, fundamentally, means money making more money. Whilst it may be easier to think in terms of greedy bankers or similar, this ignores that the CEO of the most ethical company in the world, with the greatest social conscience, is beholden to their shareholders. Their business must grow, not only making profit but increasing profit. Just as we see situations where factories are closed and workers laid off not because the company is making a loss but because the profit it makes is slightly less than before, so this ideology of continuous growth drives the aggressive resource expansion polluting the environment and heating up the planet.

Against this, it simply isn’t true that “every little helps.” It doesn’t. Certainly, it’s good to recycle and to re-use your plastic bags, but it’s not going to stop climate change and having a narrative tying the destruction of the planet to individual guilt – including horrendous anecdotes of disabled people being guilt tripped for needing to use straws – does nothing to solve this crisis.

Equality in ecology

Climate change will affect the whole planet, but we also know it will affect different communities differently. Class struggle is at the heart of this, since the bosses exacerbating the crisis, funding those who deny it even exists, or perhaps offering piecemeal, PR-friendly answers are best placed to remove themselves from the worst of the damage. The working class of the world are the ones who will bear the brunt of the damage.

Within the working class, we also know that it will be people of colour in the third world at the sharpest edge of this. The negative effects of climate change are primarily felt in countries that are majority people of colour, especially black and brown people, even though most of the planet’s CO2 emissions come from China, the United States, and Russia. People of colour are also more likely to be exposed to industrial pollution.

Disabled people can often have a greater vulnerability to environmental disasters such as storms, floods and extreme heat, meaning that in those communities at the sharp end of climate change disabled people are particularly threatened. Closer to home, we have already touched on how reducing environmental issues to personal and consumer choice does harm to those who need even as seemingly insignificant a thing as a straw to do that which others might take for granted.

70% of the world’s poor are women. They are often tasked with gathering and producing food, collecting water and fuel, and so on, all tasks that become more difficult with extreme weather events. Massive pre-existing gender inequality will only be exacerbated by this crisis.

The movement to tackle climate change must be rooted in equality, and take these issues and concerns to heart. This is why, whilst many have applauded the willingness of Extinction Rebellion to use civil disobedience and direct action, the way they have gone about it has raised considerable red flags. The legal observer organisation Green and Black Cross has distanced themselves from the group, saying they do not believe XR does enough to safeguard its activists. Tactics of soliciting mass arrests, even aside from utterly naïve pronouncements such as that jail time allows for the pursuit of yoga or falsely claiming racism isn’t an issue in prison because most guards are black, puts those without a high degree of privilege in serious danger.

Diversity of tactics

Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it is worth counterposing civil disobedience to direct action. Where civil disobedience’s shows of mass disruption are aimed at getting their protagonists arrested to show off the injustice of the system and give them their day in court, direct action is fundamentally about leverage. The working class, taking matters into their own hands, forces their target to meet their demands or face the consequences. Arrests may happen, but they are certainly not sought, and the movement does what it can to prevent them, so that those taking the action now are not removed from the fight for the future.

Strikes are a form of direct action just as much as occupations, blockades and sabotage are. In the new unions such as United Voices of the World, and even in more militant struggle from traditional unions such as the fight against blacklisting, we often see strikes accompanied by road blockades, occupations of business premises, and so on. That diversity of tactics, which the traditional unions are more often fearful of due to strikes done in the “right” way having lawful protections and the rest not, is something we need to see in environmental struggle.

So how do we get from the school strikes over climate change to strikes by workers in pursuit of the action necessary to save the planet?

Making radical demands

The fact is that the broader trade union movement is in a position now where engaging most of its members in lawful strikes is difficult. In specific workplaces with high levels of organisation, the response is strong, but across bigger bargaining units the difficulties arise. The UCU has had to disaggregate its ballots to be able to take some colleges and universities out on strike over what are effectively national issues. The CWU built for seven months to decisively win the ballot at Royal Mail over its “four pillars” campaign, and even that was subject to a legal challenge. PCS has now twice failed to pass a 50% turnout in an aggregate ballot of the whole civil service.

It would be easy to instead demand unlawful strikes, circumventing the requirement for a 50% turnout in a secret ballot. But if we can’t deliver a lawful strike, what suggests there is a mood for unlawful strikes, except in pockets? The call to a climate general strike on a certain date, like previous calls for general strikes through the height of the Occupy movement back in 2012, is unlikely to yield any actual strike action.

That doesn’t mean nothing can be done. It just means that we have to start from the shop floor, to organise around genuinely radical demands tied to the sort of massive, social change we need to see to address climate change.

Take, as one example, the demand for a shorter working week.

We already know that this “unrealistic” demand is absolutely necessary in purely economic terms. To increase work life balance, to stop workers burning out particularly in hostile environments like contact centres, and to allow workers to feel the benefit of digitalisation rather than it leading to job cuts and spiralling workloads. The Industrial Workers of the World have been calling for it for the better part of a century and now some businesses have come around to the idea even before some trade unionists.

From an environmental point of view, it also starts to address the problems of pollution caused by mass commuting and congested motorways. Replacing petrol cars with electric equivalents, even by as late a date as 2050, requires massive resource extraction. This just shifts the carbon emissions from the UK to the global south, as well as putting communities there in the firing line of further neo-colonial violence and exploitation.

This is far from the only such area of struggle. The government estates strategy means closing countless local workplaces and forcing civil servants to make longer commutes, increasing congestion and pollution. Rigid shift patterns rather than flexible working hours contribute to the pollution pinch points of rush hour. The successive attacks on our pensions and the driving up of the retirement age force people to work far longer than they would otherwise need to, because working class people are meant to pay into pensions and then die so that rich people and pension companies can reap the rewards. And so on.

Struggles around these issues won’t end capitalism or solve climate change. But by tying demands which don’t just resist the slow decline of the last three decades but actively seek to make things far better for workers to environmental issues we reinforce the point that climate struggle and class struggle are connected. By rooting these struggles in serious, systematic organising on the shop floor we start to rebuild a fighting culture that teaches workers they are the agents of change if only they harness their own collective power.

And if we spread these struggles, link them to external direct action over the environment, and make explicitly and unapologetically the point that capitalism is the problem, we might just have the start of something big.