‘After COVID how can key workers be low paid and seen as unskilled?’

Trade unionists in Derry are calling for a fundamental reappraisal of the value of labour, better pay for all front-line workers and the abolition of precarious employment.

Friday, 9th April 2021, 4:17 pm

Representatives from a range of unions affiliated to the Derry Trades Union Council made the case to a special meeting of Derry City & Strabane District Council after a year in which lower paid workers kept food on the tables, cared for those critically ill with COVID-19, and provided myriad essential services to keep society and the economy going.

Niall McCarroll, Derry Trades Union Council chair, said the crucial role the 20,000 workers affiliated to the local labour lobby played over the past twelve months deserved recognition in fair pay and terms rather than just hand claps and platitudes.

“The majority of our affiliates are now referred to as essential front-line workers but they are also low paid and referred to as being unskilled.

“How can any worker that is seen as essential to society also be seen as unskilled? This is what happens within capitalist societies - a deliberate and constant message of ‘be glad if you have a job’.”

Derry Trades Union Council chair Niall McCarroll calls for vaccines for homeless and supported living sectorKieran Smyth, from the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), spoke on behalf of workers across the retail, distributive, manufacturing and service sectors who have been conspicuous in risking infection with SARS-CoV-2 to ensure shelves, for example, have remained laden with food and essentials during the pandemic.

“I think everybody has seen that shop workers are now seen as key workers. We needed to keep the food on people’s tables while everyone else was told to stay at home. USDAW would like the council to support out ‘A New Deal for Workers’ campaign.”

Mr. Smyth said the demands are simple: better pay and an end to precarious zero hour contracts that make financial planning impossible for a huge swathe of workers in Derry and across Ireland.

“What that is, is quite basically, a list of demands that we would like to see low paid workers get within the retail sector. Literally, what they are is a minimum wage of £10. We all know that low paid workers are seen now in their real light. A minimum of £10 an hour is not a hard ask. We are also asking for minimum contracts of 16 hours per week. We need to get back to normal hour contracts. No more short hours and no more flexible working. That’s what we are asking for in this campaign and that’s a ban on zero hour contracts altogether. We also want better sick pay for our members and I think COVID-19 highlighted that even more.”

Andrew Doherty, steward and safety representative at the Royal College of Nursing, has worked as a nurse in the Altnagelvin cardiology department for over a decade.

He said health workers risked physical and mental harm on a daily basis while responding to the worst health crisis in living memory.

“The pandemic has placed a spotlight on the vital role that nursing staff play in protecting health and well-being in the community every day of every year and whilst members of the public were advised to stay at home to protect themselves nurses were asked to place themselves on the front line against the virus. Where social distancing was enforced and encouraged nurses continued to provide intimate personal nursing care for the sickest patients often at the end of life and the toll on nurses and on nursing assistants has been immeasurable.”

Video: Derry workers’ charter will target bad employers, say trade unionistsMr. Doherty said the psychological toll - evidenced in the large numbers of staff self-reporting depression, anxiety, PTSD and insomnia during COVID-19 - has been high.

“Staff have been redeployed to other areas with the huge responsibility of a patient’s life on their shoulders and that weighs heavy for every professional nurse and the emotional and physical harm done has been immeasurable. I’ve had staff come to me crying, upset, distraught at the constant high pressure, wearing claustrophobic and heavy personal protection equipment for hours on end. We’ve had staff unable to get breaks. We’ve had staff who have fainted through dehydration and who have suffered pressure damage along their face from the masks they are forced to wear.”

Saoirse Fanning from Unison spoke about the issues affecting community and voluntary workers: “They have worked tirelessly to support the emergency response to COVID-19 and to provide care and support to some of the most vulnerable people in society within the supported accommodation, care facilities, homeless projects, the women’s sector and community group.

“As well as working on the front line ourselves we as trade unionists have been fighting to get full pay when our members have been off sick with COVID-19 or have had to isolate due to close contact tracing. Some employers are only paying statutory sick pay even though money was available from the Department for Communities to pay staff in full. Even those employers who pay statutory sick pay to front-line staff are paying enhanced terms and conditions to office staff and senior managers. The lack of full pay while off work due to COVID-19 has left some workers with no option but to use food banks to survive. These are the same workers that support the most vulnerable within this city and district. Organisations where we have recognition agreements in place have been a lot better and we have negotiated full pay during COVID-19 absences on behalf of our members.”

Our radical new May Day charter will help us lead the fightbackMs. Fanning said there was a gendered aspect to the pandemic disadvantaging some of its members in particular.

“Another significant issue affecting pregnant female members during COVID-19 is that some employers are choosing to ignore the medical guidelines and recommendations regarding pregnant women not continuing to do face-to-face work after 28 weeks gestation. The advice and recommendations are that pregnant woman should be offered alternative work or suspended on full pay on safety grounds.”

Gareth Moore, from the Aegis union which represents finance and call centre workers, said its members are essential because of their provision of critical financial and credit services.

Mr. Moore said Aegis members often work in call centre environments where labour is heavily regulated and quantified. “Every minute needs monitored and reported on,” he said. Low pay is ubiquitous across the sector.

“Unfortunately low wages seem to be an industry standard rarely broken across the city or region.” He warned COVID-19 is not the only challenged facing a sector that employs thousands across the district.

“The financial industry is undergoing substantial change. This has been ramped up due to COVID with more digitisation and automation. The recent closure of branches across the island is worrying for all but the fact of the matter is the industry is focused on maximising profits, not maintaining community services. Across the employment reports 1 in 4 workers in NI earn below the living wage and workers in Derry and Strabane earn on average 6 per cent less than their counterparts across the north. The employment market here is subdued and the market rate for labour here is historically low and remains stubbornly so. But we can’t just point to COVID-19 for our difficulties. We must remember that prior to the pandemic we were seeing record levels of employment being matched by record levels of food bank use. It was never so clear that work just didn’t pay.”

Ruairí Ó Sándair, of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), spoke about issues affecting local civil servants. He’s an organiser for workers administering vital benefits for the Department for Communities.

“The majority of civil servants required to attend offices during COVID-19 in the council area work for DfC in the administering of benefits from Foyle, Lisnagelvin, Lisahally, pension service in Carlisle Road and Strabane but unlike civil servants in other department the opportunity to work from home is not readily available to the benefits processing staff due to the fact that we use a different computer system and it was obviously never designed to work from home for security reasons.”

He said 8,500 DfC staff have been designated essential workers but since the welfare system’s software and IT platforms are run out of the Department for Work and Pensions in Britain working from home is not an option.

“Obviously through the pandemic the members working in the benefits office saw a massive increase in demand and in particular a massive increase in Universal Credit applications - almost 150,000 received since March 2020.

Mr. Ó Sándair called for greater recognition for NIPSA members.

“I know we engaged with the council last year during our pay dispute. While the circumstances are now different in that the Assembly is back up and running it is extremely disappointing to note that while the NICS pay award was due from August 1, 2020, we’re still sitting here approaching a new financial year with no formal offer yet.”

Mr. McCarroll said praise and fine words are not enough.

“These meetings need to be more than aspirational. Council needs to be seen as an advocate for working people and local workers. The growing disconnect between politics and working class communities needs to be called out and every effort must be channelled into creating a voice for working class people.”