Coronavirus – the workers who keep shops, hospitals and pharmacies stocked

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Coronavirus shows who are the essential workers

The current pandemic, and the effort to bring it under control has highlighted a fact long recognized by many of our activists – that there is a perverse logic in our economic system that says the more essential your job, the less likely you are to receive the respect or reward you deserve.

Nurses and frontline clinicians are now hailed as ‘heroes’ by the current government, by the same MPs insulted them as lazy troublemakers when they campaigned for shorter hours (junior doctors) and better pay (nurses) only a couple of years ago.

Likewise, the outsourced cleaners, porters, security and other ancillary staff who are exploited by private firms, on minimum wage, zero-hours contracts and lack of job security – all of a sudden, these workers have been told (truthfully) that they are key workers, essential to the fight against the Covid virus. It is excellent to see the public respect paid to these workers – and let’s see it translated into decent wages and conditions – but they are not the only ones in the front line.

Road Transport Commercial Warehouse and Logistics workers

Transport workers are now seen as the essential workers they have always been – and that applies not just to our brothers and sisters in Passenger Transport, but to those in the logistics sector as well – the driving, warehouse and clerical workforce that keep our shops, hospitals and pharmacies stocked (when the powers that be can be bothered to order the stock).   

The lockdown has had an enormous effect on the economic life of the country, and that has obviously been reflected in our sector. As whole sectors of industry – whole swathes of manufacturing, the automotive sector in particular – have shut down, so the logistics infrastructure that served them has shut down also.

It is estimated that 40 per cent of the UK transport fleet has been furloughed, and this has created its own problems. It is not only that the sector has had to adapt overnight to a changed world, but that that world is still largely determined by the drive for profit. So our members in haulage firm after haulage firm have reported lack of PPE – and the continual excuse from the employer has been “There’s a national shortage”.

Incredible though it may sound, we are still receiving reports from drivers that delivery points are refusing them access to toilet facilities; are still expecting drivers to wait in drivers’ rooms, with no possibility for social distancing; are still treating drivers as some kind of sub-human species. It is degrading at the best of times. At times like this, it is potentially life-threatening. It is at times like this that we see the very real difference a union can make.

The driver who refuses to load at a delivery point if he cannot wash his/her hands after handing over/collecting the paperwork; who refuses to sit in an overcrowded drivers’ waiting room; who refuses to get into a cab just vacated by another driver – this driver, if they can rely on their union or H&S rep to take up their case, can feel a degree of confidence their complaint will be treated seriously.

 The driver working for the cowboy operator, who is told, “If you don’t want to do the job, there’s the door” will not feel the same confidence. And the difference can be literally life-changing.

It is not good enough that essential workers (the government’s definition) are unable to access wipes or hand-sanitisers when Boots and Tesco have them on sale (presumably at a healthy mark-up!). It is not acceptable that hauliers still expect their fleets to operate night and day, without drivers having the necessary kit to clean the cab before change-over. The government has taken on responsibility for coordinating this fight, and it is about time they started delivering. 

  • How come private entrepreneurs can locate, purchase and sell PPE, but essential services cannot be provided with it by the government?
  • How come the government claims there are adequate stocks of PPE, but ‘it’s a logistical challenge’ – when 40 per cent of the UK’s commercial drivers are standing idle, furloughed – with the government picking up the bill but not making use of the resource?
  • How come the government has relaxed the driving hours regulations (a basic public safety issue) because of the ‘crisis’ in logistics, while it allows nearly half the national fleet to stand idle?

The truth is that as long as the rules of the game are set by the pursuit of private profit, we cannot effectively tackle social emergencies like this. 

It is also true that as long as the rules of the game are set by the pursuit of private profit, there will be scabby individuals seeking to make a buck. Hence Amazon has seen its share price shoot up (at a time when the stock market is collapsing) as consumers go on-line to buy the goods they can no longer physically shop for. This has (obviously) led to a massive increase in the number of delivery drivers required.

At a time when half the economy is shut down, and the government has made no effective provision for self-employed drivers, ‘white van man’ has sought income from wherever is available. We are hearing horror stories from our members in the parcels sector, of these ‘casuals’ accepting any rate for the job, of basic H&S rules being flouted, of ridiculous number of hours being worked – not because the van drivers want to be exploited, but because rogue operators are maxing out on the opportunities created by the drivers’ desperation to provide for their families. 

RTC workers need unions

It is at times like this, when people feel their old certainties shaken, that they look for support and stability. It is no surprise that many workers will turn to their traditional social means of defense, the trade unions. 

Our Unite Suffolk RTC branch has seen an increase in membership applications since the advent of the covid-19 emergency – 50% more applications this March than the same period last year. We need to build on this, to make sure that when the lockdown ends, that the ‘new normal’ is one of our choosing, not the one preferred by the Amazons of this world.

A ‘new normal’ where our NHS is properly funded, and doesn’t need to rely on 100 year old veterans to raise funds.

A ‘new normal’ where our nurses are paid to study for their qualifications, not the other way round. Where those who work for the NHS are employed by the NHS, not out-sourced and super-exploited. Where our care workers receive the respect and pay they deserve – as part of a national health and care service.

And (of course) our essential workers, in whatever industry, receive the pay, terms and conditions we are entitled to. 

And let’s be clear – in this 21st century inter-connected world, almost all workers are essential, whether it’s the teller at the bank that helps you pay your bills, or the shelf stacker who puts out the bread for you to buy, or the lorry driver who delivers the bread to the store, we all rely on each other.

That is what trades unions should stand for, and it is the central reason why the United Left exists; to make sure Unite remains the member-led, fighting-back union that is essential if we want to create a new, a better, a more just, world.