Disabled workers and Covid

This is the text of my contribution to the debate at TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference on 10 March 2019.

Hi. I’m Janine Booth, representing RMT. Our members work in the rail, road transport, shipping and offshore energy industries.

I want to start by mentioning a group of disabled people – especially young, disabled people – who have not been mentioned so far: those on apprenticeships and employability schemes who found themselves cast aside when the lockdown came. They’ve been treated badly and it is not acceptable.

I also want to mention disabled  (and some non-disabled) workers who may not be able to wear a face covering at work, or may have to temporarily removed it, and then get abuse. Just yesterday, a cleaner on my station, having been doing filthy work with pungent cleaning materials, briefly lowered her mask, only for a passengers to come up to her and verbally abuse her, and then take a photograph of her. This is utterly unacceptable.

I work on London Underground, and like many others, have been working through the pandemic. Tragically, some of our colleagues have died, and it is our disabled colleagues who are more likely to have died.

Even when the lockdown was at its tightest, there were still many people travelling on our trains. I looked at congested trains and wondered how many of them were travelling to jobs that they could not afford to stay away from because they do not get full sick and isolation pay.

This is a big reason for the spread of the virus. Full sick and isolation pay is the one measure that the government could have taken but hasn’t taken that could have slowed the spread of the virus. I would like to plug the work of the Safe and Equal campaign in fighting for 100% sick and isolation pay for all.

Where workers don’t have full sick and isolation pay, then you get presenteeism – workers going to work when they should really be at home. Our workplaces become unsafe.

I would like to see trade unions and the TUC do more to promote to workers their right to refuse to work in conditions that present serious and imminent danger. It’s a legal right and we need to support workers in using it.

What reward do we get for our work during the pandemic?

On London Underground, we face a threat to our pensions.

Elsewhere, workers face ‘fire and rehire’ – solidarity to workers at British Gas, Tower Hamlets Council and elsewhere who are fighting this appalling tactic by employers.

We will strike to defend our pensions. My workmates have been saying – unprompted by me! – that they would willingly strike to win a pay rise for the NHS staff. (Btw, could we please not just say ‘nurses’, as this despicable 1% pay “rise” affects not just nurses but also porters, therapists, back-room staff and more).

But UK trade union law bars strikes in support of other unions. We are only allowed to strike in our own interests – and even then, only when we jump through numerous hoops to get a legal ballot result – and when we do strike in our own interests, we are called selfish.

Allow us to be unselfish – let us strike in support of a decent pay rise for NHS workers – repeal the anti-union laws that stop us doing that.

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