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Precarious workers demand campus shutdown and furlough with COVID-19 declared ‘Major Incident’ in London

With Covid-19 declared a ‘major incident’ in London, precarious workers are still being compelled to provide cleaning and security services in non-essential buildings, while many doing essential work remain on zero-hours contracts without adequate financial support if they have to self-isolate. The Universitity of London branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) are demanding hazard pay for essential work and the immediate closure of all non-essential sites, with those workers to be placed on furlough.

Dozens of IWGB members working at London universities have contracted Covid-19 since the start of the year, with at least 20 self-isolating with symptoms at UCL alone. This comes as the Observer reports no companies have been prosecuted and fined for breaking Covid-19 safety rules since the start of the current lockdown.

Jenny, University of London library worker (anonymised due to fear of reprisals) said: “There has been no consultation with staff and seems to be no awareness of how serious the pandemic is in London. The university is running virtual services but keeping the library open while the nation is in lockdown. This is reckless. There’s no consideration for us, the NHS or public health.”

The IWGB wrote to universities on 21 December requesting the closure of non-essential buildings infection rates and received no response. On 4 January, London universities told workers to come back to campus. The lockdown was announced that evening. The IWGB THEN wrote a joint letter with the University and College Union (UCU) to the University of London which again received no response.

Henry Chango-Lopez, General Secretary of the IWGB, said: “The widespread failure of universities and other London businesses to offer furlough to low-income workers and shut down non-essential buildings has undoubtedly worsened the city’s Covid crisis. We need essential rights for all essential workers and meaningful enforcement of Covid safety rules because businesses are still putting profit before peoples’ lives. The rights of our city’s precarious workers are now a public health issue.”

Workers are being compelled to attend non-essential university buildings at University College London, University of London, University of Greenwich, Goldsmiths University, University of Roehampton, Royal College of Art and London South Bank University. The city has the highest infection rate per capita in England, as the UK reached 100,000 deaths this past week. The NHS is in danger of being overcome and London is 5,000 beds short. One in every 30 people are thought to be infected with the virus.

The IWGB Universities of London Branch demands:

  • The immediate closure of all non-essential sites.

  • Furlough for workers at non-essential buildings for the duration of the crisis.

  • Universities should identify all non-essential roles on site and ensure those staff are removed from site on special leave with full pay as soon as possible. Considering that the site is not sustaining any essential services we urge for all staff to be sent home and placed on Furlough for the duration of the crisis. Occasionally, in those buildings that provide essential services, you should run a skeleton crew on site with minimum possible staff.

  • Workers with caring responsibilities, or workers at increased risk, such as those above 60 years of age, are placed on furlough.

  • The use of a bonus scheme or hazard pay for those who remain working at essential buildings, given the overwhelming risks they are facing.

  • That transport to work is considered as a significant health risk due to overcrowded trains. If workers are to be made to go into work, alternative safe transport arrangements should be put in place.

Photo via IWGB University of London, taken in November 2019.

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