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       Hazards, number 150, 2020
PIECES OF MEAT |  Tory Covid-19 blundering putting millions of workers at risk
In March 2020, Boris Johnson vowed to ‘beat the enemy’ as Covid-19 raced through the country. Then on 23 June, with the infection rate still worryingly high and hundreds of typically low paid 'essential' workers already dead, the prime minister announced a dramatic relaxation of the rules. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill explains how, for the sake of the economy, the prime minister decided more would have to die.

 

Any decisions on easing the lockdown would be ‘guided by the science’, Boris Johnson repeated at press conference after press conference as the pandemic raged through Spring 2020. By June, though, any pretence the UK government was listening to the science was as elusive as the prime minister’s ‘invisible enemy’.

Boris Johnson had taken the country into lockdown too late, started test and trace too late, and undermined key ‘stay safe’ messaging in a desperate effort to manufacture good news. Then, to compound the harm, he decided to restart the economy too early.



DEADLY GAME  Policy decisions by prime minister Boris Johnson have seen worker Covid-19 deaths in the UK running higher than in most countries. These weren’t the sick and the vulnerable. The victims were working age and fit enough to hold down a job.

The first back to work message came on 10 May 2020, at the time it had already become apparent the UK had one of the highest Covid-19 death rates anywhere. In an address broadcast to the nation, the prime minister said “there are millions of people who are both fearful of this terrible disease, and at the same time also fearful of what this long period of enforced inactivity will do to their livelihoods and their mental and physical wellbeing.”

He continued: “We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work. And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited.

“So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.”

It was a decision that dismayed many. Steve Tombs, professor in social policy and criminality at the Open University, commenting on the prime minister urging construction workers to return, said: “In my view this is criminal negligence, it’s manslaughter, it’s social murder.”

Working class killer

Overall, the Office for National Statistics figures released on 11 May, the day after the government urged all construction workers to return to work, reported ‘low-skilled workers in construction’ had a Covid-19 death rate of 25.9 per 100,000 males, five times the rate for male ‘professionals’.

The ONS figure also revealed workers in ‘low skilled elementary occupations’ (21.4 deaths per 100,000) were almost four times as likely to die from the virus as ‘professionals’ (5.6 per 100,000).

UNION ARMY  Unite has called on the government to deploy its ‘army' of union health and safety reps to help keep the country's workplaces safe. The union has also written to the government to raise concerns that trade unions were not asked to contribute to the government's review of the social distancing advice. more

It was a picture that would only get worse, as lockdown guidance was relaxed. For all the talk of ‘essential’ workers, it turned out as the crisis progressed they were disposable.

Updated ONS figures published on 26 June 2020, analysing deaths in England and Wales by occupation up to 25 May 2020, revealed that in males 17 occupations had significantly increased death rates due to Covid-1,9 including taxi drivers and chauffeurs (135 deaths), security guards (107 deaths), and bus and coach drivers (54 deaths).

According to ONS, “two major groups of occupations were found to have similarly high rates of death involving Covid-19. The first was elementary workers with 39.7 deaths per 100,000 men (421 deaths). The occupations in this group include those performing mostly routine tasks, such as construction workers and cleaners.

The second was caring, leisure and other service occupations (39.6 deaths per 100,000 men, or 160 deaths), which include occupations such as nursing assistants, care workers and ambulance drivers.

These deaths were not inevitable – worker deaths here were outstripping those in other nations. An Amnesty International report published on 14 July 2020 confirmed England and Wales has one of the worst coronavirus death tolls among health and care workers – with at least 540 recorded fatalities, compared to a worldwide total of 3,000 deaths in these jobs.

These weren’t the sick, old, vulnerable people we’d been told would die. They were working age and fit enough to hold down a job.

Workplace outbreaks

By 2 July 2020, two days before the government urged most of us to complete the return to work, with workplaces pubs, restaurants and hairdressers joining offices, factories and all the ‘essential’ workplaces that never stopped back on the job, the dangers of an unregulated, unpoliced return to the workplace were becoming evident.

Public Health England had at first buried workplace outbreaking in an ‘other settings’ catch-all category. But when the workplace figures were separated out, they showed the spread of the virus at work is trending up while transmission in most other settings is in decline.

In the last week in June 2020, PHE figures indicated there were 43 outbreaks in ‘workplaces’, a category that did not include the 58 outbreaks in care homes, 13 in hospitals, 40 in educational settings and four in prisons. All in all, that one week saw workers in over 150 workplaces working where an outbreak would be confirmed.



MISSING IN ACTION It is hard to see what the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has done during the pandemic, MPs found, noting it had only required one business to close. Wrong. Hazards discovered not a single workplace had been shut by the absentee regulator, which appeared unaware of most of the outbreaks hitting workplaces. [See: Abdication, Hazards 150].

The flatfooted and inspection averse workplace safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), knew of only ‘about 20’ outbreaks.

The bare statistics did not tell the whole story. Some of the workplace outbreaks had affected hundreds of workers. Not all survived. The ONS figures suggested by late May nearly 5,000 working age people had succumbed to Covid-19, with workers in several occupational categories, dying at a rate twice or more that for all people in that age bracket.

It was probable by then the work-related death toll was already in the thousands. And as the economy reopened simultaneously with controls being relaxed, the chances were many more would follow.

Dead meat

It was large outbreaks in meat processing factories that showed how quickly an outbreak could tear through a workplace. Unite said it was ‘inevitable’ that some low paid meat factory workers on ‘exploitative contracts’, who should be self-isolating, will continue working because they are only entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) of £95.85 a week.

SELF-EVIDENT The TUC is calling on the UK government to make sure that all workers have financial support to comply with social isolation requirements under the NHS Test and Trace scheme. The union body warns that inadequate sick pay could stop people acting on public health requests to self-isolate. more

In May 2020, it was confirmed three workers at a Cranswick food processing facility in Wombwell, Barnsley, which supplies UK supermarkets, died after testing positive for coronavirus. Workers complained there was little physical distancing and they were not provided with masks. There was also no sick for those becoming infected or self-isolating.

GMB national officer Eamon O'Hearn criticised ‘inadequate’ government guidance, adding: “It’s imperative that Cranswick works with GMB to review operations identify any issues that could impact on the safety of our members.”

On 18 June 2020, a meat processing site owned by Asda in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, became the third food plant in 48 hours to confirm an outbreak after over 150 workers fell ill with the virus. The Kober plant, which supplies bacon to Asda’s supermarkets and employs more than 500 people, closed temporarily and a test-and-trace system implemented.

Residents in the West Yorkshire town only found out by chance when health secretary Matt Hancock made a passing reference to the ongoing outbreak that evening, in a live Downing Street press conference.

 

There have been similar outbreaks in Wales. The UK’s main supplier of supermarket chicken, 2 Sisters Food Group, closed its Anglesey plant for 14 days in June 2020. Some 217 coronavirus cases were found among the 560 staff.

On 2 July 2020, staff at the Rowan Foods frozen meals plant in Wrexham said they are “afraid” to go to work after Public Health Wales revealed the number of coronavirus cases linked to the plant had risen to 283. Workers complained physical distancing was “impossible”, with workers sometimes working 30-40cm apart. Some added that they felt unable to go sick because they company wasn’t paying sick pay.



KILLING PLANTS  Hundreds of low paid UK meat processing workers have tested positive for coronavirus. The factories, which are often crowded, cold and damp, are the perfect breeding ground for the infection.

A Rowan Foods statement said a visit by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had raised no serious issues and the site would stay open.

But Unite regional officer Dave Griffiths expressed ‘surprise’ at the company’s claim. “We have hundreds of members that continue to dispute Rowan Foods version of events. The Covid positive testing at Rowan Foods tells its own story.”

He added: “We are calling upon Rowan Foods to comply with Welsh government guidance and pay their workers in full when self-isolating in order to ensure that employees do not suffer a financial detriment. Only by doing this can we ensure that the virus is not transmitted further on this site, in our communities and beyond. Full sick pay so that employees can stay home and be safe is in our view the key action that would have stopped the virus spreading on this site.”

It took a further two weeks, at which point the confirmed cases linked to the plant had risen above 300, when Rowan Foods finally agreed to provide backdated company sick pay to those testing positive or self-isolating.

FOOD FIGHT  HSE is not the only regulator that’s gone missing during the crisis. Meat inspectors’ union UNISON has accused the Food Standards Agency (FSA) of failing to carry out basic on-site Covid-19 safety assessments, which has put hundreds of workers at risk of coronavirus infection in the meat slaughter and processing industry. more

There have also been 134 confirmed cases at a Kepak plant in Merthyr Tydfil since April. On 27 June 2020, Public Health Wales said testing at the meat production facility identified 101 confirmed cases out of the 810 people tested. This company was also given a clean bill of health by HSE.

“A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) visit has been carried out at the site and HSE officers were satisfied that Kepak Merthyr are taking all reasonably practicable measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus within the workforce,” said Heather Lewis, consultant in health protection for Public Health Wales.

HSE has shown a remarkable reluctance to take any enforcement action on Covid-19 risks in the workplace, despite thousands of known infections in workplaces, many clearly due to in work transmission of the virus.

In a 2 July 2020 statement to Hazards, it admitted: “There has been no instance of a factory closing following an outbreak because of action taken by HSE.” In a 6 July update for Hazards, it added: “Around a dozen notices related to Covid-19 have been issued, showing that the majority of businesses we have been in contact with act on our advice.”

There are growing warning signs HSE’s optimism could be misplaced. Serious workplace outbreaks have been observed in Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Ireland, Spain and the US.

GERMAN ACTION  New coronavirus hotspots in Germany's meat processing plants have highlighted the massive abuse of subcontracted migrant labour on which the industry depends, unions have said. Draft legislation published in May and due to take effect on 1 January 2021 would require the meat companies to directly employ their workforce, impose new oversight on working hours and payments and enforce strict liability for violations. more

As many as 25,000 US meat and poultry workers are reported to have contracted Covid-19, with at least 91 deaths. Global food and farming union IUF said high line speeds, a lack of PPE and crammed, cold workplaces created an ideal breeding ground for the virus.

A major outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, a country whose handling on the coronavirus crisis has been praised, has seen the workplace emerge as the dominant location for spread of the virus. It saw Australia’s second most populous city thrown back into lockdown, with a state of emergency declared by the Victoria state government.

On 19 July 2020, Daniel Andrews, the state premier for Victoria, acknowledged: “About 80 per cent of our new cases since May are being driven by transmission in workplaces,” revealing the state had seen 363 new cases of Covid-19 and two related deaths in the preceding 24 hours.

HSE fails virus test

Professor Andrew Watterson, a Stirling University occupational health expert,  questioned whether adequate procedures and resources are in place to identify and investigate all work-related illnesses and deaths linked to the virus, particularly in non-health or social care settings.

In such cases, employees and their families may not have the Covid-19 link recognised or compensated – which could, in turn, lead to civil court action, he explained.



LOCKED OUT  Too little attention has been paid to the Covid-19 risks faced by workers not employed in health or social care jobs, Stirling University professor Andy Watterson has warned. He questions whether the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was prepared for an outbreak.

In arguments spelled out in the peer-reviewed journal New Solutions and in a separate letter published as a BMJ Rapid Response, he notes too little research has been done on the impact of the virus on workers not employed in health or social care – such as those working in shops, construction, food processing, transport and small businesses.

“Employers have a duty to report occupational diseases. However, Covid-19 is not yet classified as an occupational disease under the Prescribed Industrial Diseases scheme, which would generate workers’ compensation,” he said.

“Under current legislation, incidents where a worker is exposed, or possibly exposed, to Covid-19 is reported to the Health and Safety Executive under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013. There are concerns that occupational Covid-19 cases will not be reported, and those that are may not be fully investigated, recognised or compensated for.” HSE has conceded there has been serious under-reporting of Covid-19 cases.

Professor Watterson said a continued lack of planning was responsible for the threat posed by Covid-19 to workplace health and safety in the UK. He added: “A catalogue has emerged in the UK of missed opportunities and failures by various government bodies, agencies and organisations, and employers to plan for the pandemic and to equip staff with the necessary health and safety equipment and procedures to protect themselves and the public from Covid-19.

“In contrast, UK trade unions and non-governmental organisations issued early warnings of a pandemic – and offered important guidance on solutions to mitigate its impact on workers and, hence, wider society.”

UN RIGHTS  As countries begin to ease restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, UN human rights experts are calling on governments and businesses to ensure all workers are protected from exposure to Covid-19. more

The professor said regulators should have been prepared for the crisis.

“Prior to the pandemic, the Health and Safety Executive and other regulators in local authorities should have been checking pandemic health and safety planning, and the availability and capability of appropriate personal protective equipment for health and social care workers, as well as those employed in shops, warehouses, transport and other workplaces. It is not clear from information in the public domain that they did so,” he said.

The TUC is collating the risk assessments published by employers as they start to open again after lockdown. The union body said its aim is to support a safe return by increasing transparency about how safety is being addressed in each sector and to pressure non-compliant employers to conduct the proper risk assessments and publish them online.

“You can help by checking out your own employer or others in your sector, and entering them into the database at www.covidsecurecheck.uk,” the TUC said.

 

 


Test and Trace only works if isolating workers get paid

The TUC is calling on the UK government to make sure that all workers have financial support to comply with social isolation requirements under the NHS Test and Trace scheme. The union body warns that inadequate sick pay could stop people acting on public health requests to self-isolate. 

Many workers benefit from contractual sick pay, paid for by their employer. But around seven million employees – a quarter of the workforce – have only the protection of statutory sick pay. This currently provides just £95.85 per week, which the TUC says is too little for many families to live on. Around two million of the lowest waged employees do not even qualify for statutory sick pay, because their earnings fall below the qualifying income threshold.

The TUC wants the government to bring in emergency legislation to ensure that statutory sick pay covers all employees, regardless of how much they earn. It also wants an increase in the weekly amount of statutory sick pay to the equivalent of a week’s work at the National Living Wage (£325 per week). And there should be a legal duty on employers not to penalise or discriminate against any workers who are required to self-isolate once or repeatedly by NHS Track and Trace.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Everyone wants NHS Test and Trace to work, so we can all get on with our lives. But it’s not viable to ask people to self-isolate, perhaps repeatedly, if they will be pushed into financial hardship by doing so. Instead they will be forced to keep working. That puts them at risk – and their family, workmates and local community too.

“The government must raise statutory sick pay to at least the level of the real Living Wage - £325 per week. And it must make sure low-paid workers can get it. That’s how to show that we really are all in this together.”

The TUC is collating the risk assessments published by employers as they start to open again after lockdown. The TUC said its aim is to support a safe return by increasing transparency about how safety is being addressed in each sector and to pressure non-compliant employers to conduct the proper risk assessments and publish them online.

Workers and employers can add details of their own assessments to the database. Testing & tracing for Covid-19: How to ensure fair access and manage monitoring in the workplace, TUC, May 2020. 
Return to safe workplaces, TUC Education, May 2020. TUC COVID Secure Check portal.

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Government urged to deploy safety rep ‘army’

Unite has urged the government to deploy its ‘army' of union health and safety reps to help keep the country's workplaces safe. The union has also written to the government to raise concerns that trade unions were not asked to contribute to the government's review of the social distancing advice (see: Out of touch, Hazards 150].

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, said he was ‘baffled’ by the Westminster government's reluctance to put the tens of thousands of highly skilled union experts to best use in re-opening the economy safely, especially as the devolved governments have been working with trades unions for some weeks now to ensure that workplaces there do everything possible to eliminate coronavirus risk.

“Being serious about re-opening the economy safely means, as the government has repeatedly pledged, doing whatever it takes to build public and workforce confidence,” he said reducing the two metre rule which “could backfire if the prime minister and the government cannot give an absolute assurance that public health will not be compromised. So I urge the prime minister to take Unite up on its repeated offer to deploy our army of tens of thousands of health and safety reps to assist in re-opening workplaces and community spaces safely.”

Noting both the Welsh and Scottish governments were working with union and their safety reps, he said: “Prime minister, Unite's offer still stands. Put our expertise to best use, assisting in workplaces with no dedicated health and safety expertise. We could save small businesses a small fortune as our expertise comes with no cost. This is literally a win: win for the government – safer workplaces and a more confident public.”

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Meat workers at risk from safety check failures

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has failed to carry out basic on-site Covid-19 safety assessments, which has put hundreds of workers at risk of coronavirus infection in the meat slaughter and processing industry in England and Wales, UNISON has warned.

In a 3 June 2020 letter, the union wrote about its concerns to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which it said is investigating whether there have been breaches of safety regulations over the failure to carry out proper workplace risk assessments.

UNISON said the move comes as a number of sizeable outbreaks have been reported recently involving dozens of workers at meat processing firms, including in Anglesey and West Yorkshire. The union said it has been repeatedly pressing the FSA for detailed risk assessments of food business operators throughout the coronavirus pandemic. However, the union says only generic assessments have been completed on a region-wide basis that don’t look at the arrangements in individual businesses.

Within the meat industry, people are often working in places where it can be difficult to keep an adequate social distance, said UNISON, which represents hundreds of meat safety inspectors and vets that work in slaughterhouses, as well as environmental health officers who visit processing firms.  Additionally, when the FSA has attended meat factory premises, union health and safety representatives have not been allowed to accompany the agency’s inspectors, said UNISON.

UNISON national food safety officer Paul Bell said: “It was clear from the beginning of the pandemic there were potential and serious dangers in the meat industry. Recent Covid-19 outbreaks have shown attention was needed from the start. Urgent action is required to make sure meat preparation businesses are safe.”

He added: “Staff and consumers will understandably be worried, particularly as the two metre rule is relaxed. All employers must have proper safety measures in place and the FSA needs to visit each and every workplace to protect staff and restore confidence in the food on our plates.”

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German union demands regulation and enforcement

New coronavirus hotspots in Germany's meat processing plants have highlighted the massive abuse of subcontracted migrant labour on which the industry depends, unions have said. In late June 2020 it was confirmed more than 1,500 workers have been infected with Covid-19 at the giant Tönnies pork processing plant in Rheda-Wiedenbrück alone, where local authorities re-imposed strict lockdowns just as economic activity was reviving.

Draft legislation published in May and due to take effect on 1 January 2021 would require the meat companies to directly employ their workforce, impose new oversight on working hours and payments and enforce strict liability for violations.

However, unions say companies initially responded by threatening to leave Germany. Following the latest outbreaks, on 23 June, Tönnies joined with two other leading companies in a pledge to voluntarily renounce subcontracting.

The NGG union, which has been fighting for years to raise standards in the meat industry, denounced the companies' declaration as a smokescreen to avoid strict legal regulation, stating: “Voluntary solutions in the meat industry have never worked and will not work. Working and living conditions in the meat industry will only be improved through strong laws.”

Peter Schmidt, NGG’s head of international affairs, commented: “The entire sector is in a disastrous race to the bottom, driven by the market and by consumer demand for cheap meat.” Pointing out migrant workers housed in dormitories were being dangerously exploited, he added: “The working conditions in these plants are the absolute worst; cold, close together, working at high speed. And the housing, it is like in slavery times. When we were looking at it, we found that people were having to share beds. You do a 12-hour shift and then you change over.”

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) warned a sharp rise in Germany’s reproduction rate of Covid-19 linked to the outbreaks in meatpacking plants and logistics centres could trigger a ‘second wave’ of infections.

Resource: EFFAT report on meat processing outbreaks in Europe and the regulatory and trade union response, June 2020.

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UN rights experts say ‘no worker is expendable’

As countries begin to ease restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, UN human rights experts are calling on governments and businesses to ensure all workers are protected from exposure to Covid-19.

In a joint statement, 16 UN human rights special rapporteurs and UN working group leaders note: “No worker is expendable. Every worker is essential, no matter what category is applied to them by states or businesses. Every worker has the right to be protected from exposure to hazards in the workplace, including the coronavirus.”

The statement adds: “We are concerned at the number of frontline workers who have not been given adequate protection during peak periods of contagion in various countries and economic sectors. And as governments continue to reduce restrictions and workers begin to return to work, we urge all States and businesses to ensure preventative and precautionary measures are in place to protect every worker. We are also deeply concerned about the disproportionate risk presented to workers that are low-income, minorities, migrants, older persons and those with pre-existing health conditions, women, as well as the informal sector and those in the ‘gig’ economy.”

The statement concludes: “We urge states and businesses to work with labour unions and other worker representatives to help ensure necessary safeguards are in place… Our message today is simple, but crucial: every worker must be protected, no matter what.”

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PIECES OF MEAT

In March 2020, Boris Johnson vowed to ‘beat the enemy’ as Covid-19 raced through the country. Then on 23 June, with the infection rate still worryingly high and hundreds of typically low paid 'essential' workers already dead, the prime minister announced a dramatic relaxation of the rules. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill explains how, for the sake of the economy, the prime minister decided more would have to die.

Contents
Introduction
Working class killer
Workplace outbreaks
Dead meat
HSE fails virus test

Other stories
Test and Trace only works if isolating workers get paid
Government urged to deploy safety rep ‘army’
Meat workers at risk from safety check failures
German union demands regulation and enforcement
UN rights experts say ‘no worker is expendable’

Hazards webpages
Hazards news
Infections
Work and health

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