Gig economy workers are not being given personal protective equipment or being tested for infection leaving them at risk of contracting coronavirus.
The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has written to the Department for Work and Pensions threatening legal action after failing to enforce EU safety at work regulations. IWGB are threatening legal action if the duty of care is not extended to include those who are not employees.
Members of the union include foster care workers, cleaners, couriers, drivers and others in non-staff roles, who are claiming they not be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) or tested for COVID-19.
IWGB in their letter said: “Under EU law, which still applies, the relevant measures to protect the health of workers, including in conditions caused by this pandemic, should encompass and protect not only employees but also workers who, under UK law, are not defined as employees.”
Agency NHS workers also at risk
Over the weekend before the government’s announcement of the testing expansion, The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) conducted a UK-wide survey of more than 22,000 health and care workers.
76% of those surveyed claimed no test was offered. 44% were unsure of how to access testing.
Furthermore, more than four in five temporary staff had not been offered Covid-19 testing, compared to three-quarters of permanent staff. 79% of those working outside of the NHS had not been offered a test, compared with 75% in the health service. In care homes and prisons, about 50% did not know how to access tests. With temporary staff, this figure was 60%.
Talking to NHS agency worker Mrs M Joshua, she said “I am asthmatic and struggling with the PPE given, there are no isolation procedures when a patient comes in. There should be measures when the status of somebody is not known. Staff have walked out due to lack of PPE and ended up sick.”
Mrs Joshua continued: “Agency staff sometimes are worried to speak up about PPE. Some of us agency workers are pressured to send money home, making some people take advantage of the extra shifts, which put us directly in the firing line.”
There is another level of instability, as these agency workers already go without employee benefits and rights and no guarantee of work. In an agency worker contract, ‘workers rights’ only apply when the person is actually working, rather than ‘employment rights’ that apply to regardless of an employee. Agency contracts are of course temporary, meaning no continuity or retention of contracts. These loopholes mean agency workers can fall through these government protection schemes. To then go to work and not have the adequate equipment presented adds further insult to injury. Many agency workers cannot afford to take days off, as a day off is money lost.
Recent events and the extent of the economic fall out means that jobs and employees across the board are also at risk.
Virgin Atlantic faces a “massive battle to survive and save jobs”, Richard Branson recently told his workforce of over 10,000. The company has retired its seven 747 jumbo jets and plan to cut over 3000 jobs. Branson is the 268th richest person in the world and the seventh richest person in the UK with an estimated $5.2bn (£4.2bn) paper fortune. The government recently rejected his plea for a £50m bailout for tax-payers to shoulder his losses, despite paying no taxes. Similarly, Rolls-Royce announced job cuts of 8000, which may rise further when announced at the end of this month.
Branson’s Virgin Care Ltd has been one of the biggest private providers of NHS contracts in the UK since 2010, which operates over 400 NHS services around England in community care and adult social care. These contracts have been worth over £2bn. The company has recorded an annual loss since 2010 and pays no tax in the UK, as it is registered to the parent company Virgin Group Holdings in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands. Through a complex series of loopholes, Virgin Care eliminates it’s tax liabilities in the UK, as Richard Murphy’s research has previously shown.
In 2018, due to Freedom of Information requests, it was revealed the NHS was relying on agency workers for years at a time and spending over £2bn a year on average since 2013 to plug staffing gaps. At some trusts, more than one in ten workers were provided by agencies.
Hospitality workers have also suffered as they have fallen through the cracks. This week forty-four cross-party MP’s signed a letter to Deliveroo calling for proper PPE provisions for all riders, a halt to terminations and regular testing, without which they say the firm is putting “thousands of people at risk”. Despite the vital work providing food across communities, especially to people who are less mobile, Deliveroo riders are all independent contractors and thus have no recourse to sick pay, minimum wage or furlough.
Rampant privatisation and hypocrisy shown by actors such as Branson at the expense of centralised funding and investment have created this false economy within the NHS. Chronic staffing shortages are causing huge problems, agency bills climb higher and yet they fail to provide workers with adequate protection. Whilst this is going on, private entities continually avoid tax payments towards the health service.
We cannot forget about other workers who have lost jobs due to COVID 19. While the government’s extension of the furlough scheme is amazing people are being left behind. The UK is the 6th biggest economy in the world, and the government have proven themselves chronically inept in putting safety over and above profits. The government must extend it’s support schemes to low-paid and agency workers, whose work has been and continues to be vital.