UNISON, together with other trade unions and STUC, met Scottish Government Minister for Fair Work, Fiona Hyslop, and officials on Wednesday (March 18) to discuss issues across the economy, in the various sectors arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNISON emphasised acute problems in the care sector, not just of sustainability of business, workforce matters, but the consequences for vulnerable sections of the community.
Mike Kirby, UNISON Scottish Secretary, said: “We told Ministers that there should be no detriment to public service workers irrespective of their employment status with a need to level up conditions so that workers delivering public services in the direct sector, arms-length organisations, NDPBs, voluntary and private sectors have the same levels of economic security, with funding provided by central and local government to give to effect that.”
UNISON has written to the chief executives of the provider umbrella bodies, Coalition of Care Providers Scotland and Scottish Care, to say: “The Scottish Government’s Fair Work in Care Group is setting itself as a potentially important space for those involved in the sector to establish an agenda and make an impact upon standards of care and workforce matters, and delivery for users and carers.
“However,the current crisis in care requires more immediate action. For providers, funding pressures may impact upon maintenance of standards, quality of service and workforce matters not least in areas of (sick) pay if there is growing self isolation in already vulnerable groups.
“For the workforce there are acute issues of job security, income security, appropriate training and PPE. Increasingly, UNISON is becoming aware of these pressures from our members and from working with providers. At once we have a common cause.
“Big government, bold steps and the collective power of workers are needed in the face of this crisis.”
At a meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture on Wednesday, UNISON and trade unions from across the public and private sectors raised the need for massive government intervention to support workers and business through a co-ordinated response with fair work at its heart.
Government needs to use every lever it has – including public contracting – to ensure a fair and effective response from employers on workforce issues.
Despite a range of missteps to date from public and private sector employers, the potential exists for workers – through their trade unions – to drive a positive collective response to this unprecedented crisis. This could include: the effective and managed redeployment of public service workers, workers facing redundancy, employees voluntarily giving up their time, workers being released with full pay from other sectors of the economy, to use their skills and knowledge to support our key public services. An innovative approach based on Fair Work principles can be the driving force for a cohesive, worker-led, civic response to the current crisis.
With the closure of schools – alongside new government advice on self-isolation – many groups of workers will find themselves unable to undertake their normal work and many will be forced to withdraw completely. This will put key services under massive pressure.
Unionised workers can be out supporting the most vulnerable in society including the elderly, infirm and those living in poverty. They must be collectively-empowered, properly-managed and their contribution recognised and respected. Their commitment as part of the national effort must be underpinned by a guarantee that they will suffer no long-term detriment to their pay or working conditions.
Unions are willing to engage constructively in discussing service reform and way of working to deal with the current crisis. However, this should in no way be taken as agreement to this being a precursor to permanent future change.
The next 72 hours is vital if that potential is to be untapped. There could be severe consequences if public bodies get this wrong.
The experience to date of Scotland’s public service trade unions is that the response from public sector employers has thus far been patchy at best. The reality for many public sector workers, desperately trying to do their best is:
- a lack of meaningful consultation by employers across the public sector over their response to the crisis;
- failures and inconsistencies in the provision of vital PPE equipment to a range of staff (including ambulance drivers and care workers), a possible consequence of supply chain inadequacies;
- inconsistencies in the approach of employers to protecting workers in high risk groups (including those who are pregnant and those who face underlying health issues);
- an unnecessary delay in closing some key non-essential public buildings such as museums and galleries;
- and high levels of confusion in colleges and universities with actions taken without consultation or regard for the concerns of the workforce.
Among the demands of unions to address these concerns are:
- A requirement for unions to have a seat at the table in all major strategic decision-making bodies;
- no detriment to public service workers irrespective of their employment status with a need to level-up conditions so that workers delivering public services in the direct sector, arms-length organisations, NDPBs, voluntary and private sectors have the same levels of economic security, with funding provided by central and local government to give to effect that;
- the need for an emergency review of all PPE provision with a view to ensuring consistency in the highest standards of protection for workers and the public they serve;
- the need for early testing for all public service workers both for their safety and the safety of clients;
- the need to act immediately to provide consistency across Scotland of safety-first advice for workers in high risk groups such as those who are pregnant and those who face underlying health issues;
- immediate steps to be taken to close key non-essential public buildings such as museums and galleries;
- a guarantee from employers that no attempt will be made to misuse the current crisis as a means of pushing down pay or legitimate pay claims;
- emergency measures to be put in place to protect the most vulnerable children who will be disproportionately affected in educational and welfare terms from school closures.
These demands are in addition to those already presented to the Scottish Government by the STUC. These include: the demand that employers in receipt of Government support must commit to:
- Continuing to provide full pay to workers who are off sick or self-isolating;
- Relaxing the rules on doctors’ notes, recognising the scale of the crisis and the increasing pressure providing documentation places on health services;
- Discounting sick leave during the COVID-19 crisis from the normal sickness absence policy so that workers are not disciplined or dismissed for meeting public health guidance;
- Paying workers based on normal (rather than contracted) working hours, supporting workers on zero hours contracts;
- Providing paid carers leave for workers who are unable to attend work due to caring responsibilities during the COVID-19 emergency
That the Scottish Government must take urgent action to:
- Put fair work conditions around all support to business that is offered, in line with the recommendations above;
- Use its influence to ensure that unions are fully involved in designing and implementing effective sector responses to the crisis, in aviation; public transport; hospitality; leisure and tourism; and retail among others; and
- to use social security powers to top up workers’ incomes to the level of the living wage for workers reliant on SSP and those carved out of SSP who will be dependent on universal credit.