Postal workers in the COVID-19 crisis

Royal Mail has given postal workers nothing in return for their decision to suspend strike action in light of the coronavirus crisis, argues Ikenna Azụbụike Ọnwụnabọnze. The example of workers who have walked out on safety grounds should be generalised.

Posties walked out in Chatham in Kent earlier this month in protest at the lack of coronavirus protection. Photo via Reel News

On 17 March, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), after an overwhelming 94.5% vote in favour of a strike action, on a turnout of 63.4% of over 110,000 Royal Mail staff, decided not to announce dates for strike action. Instead on that day, after announcing the result, they offered their support to the Royal Mail Group ‘as an additional emergency service’ in this difficult time. In doing so, they reached out to the business, offering to ‘set aside our differences’ with the management and put ‘the interest of the nation first.’ In return, they asked Royal Mail to end their ‘attack’ on CWU members, their employees, and any imposed implementation of systems or work-practices without agreement, for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis. The CWU press release did not make clear what would happen after this time, nor did it give the business’s response to the request. The CWU has, however, written to the government, with the support of 92 MPs, to follow this up.

Royal Mail’s callous push for profit at the expense of the workers wellbeing has understandably led some CWU members to criticise the union’s move as a ‘mistake’ and ‘naïve’. Their belief is that Royal Mail has been handed a carte blanche to push through executive actions as previously planned, and to implement everything they wished for without opposition. This will include a ‘streamlining’ of the business that will lead to the loss of about 20,000 jobs. In other words, this will mean a continuation of their attempts to restructure the business into a solely parcel delivery service. Already, employee pensions have suffered, workloads have increased, tracking of workers has intensified and the existing four pillars agreement has been rejected. Still further attacks are planned if these succeed.

However, the arrival of Covid-19 has meant that there cannot and must not be ‘business as usual’. With the steady rise of the coronavirus cases and deaths around the world, the focus is, quite rightly, on protecting human lives and livelihoods. That means all hands on deck to deliver services that will help mitigate the devastating impact of Covid-19 in the nation and around the world.

Whether the same priority is motivating the businesspeople in charge of Royal Mail is another question. Royal Mail staff have been given ‘key worker’ status, but the business’s attitude appears to have remained the same despite the crisis. The CWU Deputy General Secretary, Terry Pullinger, has criticised Royal Mail as, ‘seeing the crisis through commercial lenses.’ This is to say that the business is basically putting costs ahead of safety and wellbeing of the workers as a number of delivery offices have reported shortages in PPE and neglects of the social distancing rules. Terry Pullinger went further to say that, ‘We are now at the stage where it is a constant battle with the employer to keep our members safe in their places of work’.

Businesses should prioritise the safety of their workers. This also means keeping safe our loved ones whom we go back home to, as well as the wider public, particularly the most vulnerable. For this reason, the CWU has proposed 16 measures, addressed to the Government, Royal Mail and its members, calling for the implementation of the ‘emergency services principles’, ensuring that PPE is in place for all employees, with the hope of minimising the spread of Coronavirus and saving lives ‘while maintaining an emergency network with prioritised services.’ This includes the suspension of delivery of all unaddressed advertising; a reduction in the daily deliveries to three times a week with only parcels/packets and first-class mails delivered on alternative days. The CWU went further to advise that if personal protective equipment (PPE) is not in place for all employees, or in any workplace, then offices should cease operation until the equipment has been provided to all employees.

Employees of Royal Mail had in earlier weeks walked out in various offices across the country demanding for improved work practice and protection against the virus and for the delivery of unaddressed mails. This, particularly the delivery of unaddressed mails, feeds into the accusation that the business is putting cost ahead of its employee’s safety – and by extension, the public. The delivery of this nonessential mail can only lead to unsafe working conditions at the workplace since it requires more people to process. The smaller delivery offices make the government’s recommendation of two meters social distancing difficult to achieve – putting more workers in danger of contracting the virus. In response to this, Dave Ward, The CWU General Secretary stated their support for its members and further emphasised that the CWU would back any of its members who removed themselves from work due to unsafe work environment. For this reason, the CWU, on the principle used in the emergency services, have called for a reduced working week for Royal Mail workers in order to halve the number of workers coming in in any given day. It further warned the company to ‘cease acting as a commercial operation and instead operate as a vital national service’ conforming with the designation of its staff as key workers.

Further challenges presented themselves as almost 26,000 of Royal Mail employees have called off sick or are on self-isolation due to the outbreak. The CWU are saying that Royal Mail are keeping the same policy for sick pay and attendance until the middle of April 2020, a decision that followed the government’s emergency measures of 13 March 2020, to put an end to the spread of the virus. However, these measures, which were notably insufficient at the time have now been replaced. They have now advised vulnerable people to ‘shield’ themselves for a period of 12 weeks, while maintaining the 7 days self-isolation for those with symptom and 14 days self-isolation for their family members. Companies in the ‘key workers’ category who prioritise the best interest of their employees (some of whom have had life-threatening illnesses) should naturally keep abreast of these changes to minimise the risk of them contracting the potentially fatal virus. However, Royal Mail has failed to do so. This brought further criticism from the CWU that the business’s claim to put ‘workers’ wellbeing first’ is a sham. This echoed Terry Pullinger’s view that the business is taking a commercial and profitmaking route, at the expense of its workers’ welfare.

In a partial attempt to address this issue, the CWU and Royal Mail have reached an agreement that Royal Mail will cover the full pay of staff with less than 12 months’ service, as they do for those above 12 months of service. This will ensure that sick leave is discounted for these employees, so their attendance record will be unaffected. This is progress. However, the business has refused to cover for those on half or no pay, due to long-term absence, despite the government’s advice that they should shield themselves for a period of 12 weeks. In the same vein, the pay of employees who take time off due to care for vulnerable people will not be covered. These are absences that may never have occurred, save for the government’s advice. Carl Maden, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the CWU, called this ‘unfair’ and ‘immoral’.

The criticism of the CWU by some of its members cannot be seen as too harsh in this case, even though the Covid-19 outbreak is not the primary reason why people voted for industrial action. A threat of industrial action might have brought the business to the table for a reasonable negotiation regarding this outbreak, of which the first confirmed case was recorded in the UK on 31 January 2020. The speed with which the virus was spreading and the urgent response needed to tackle it were reflected very well in the CWU’s press release of 17 March 2020 during which they announced their intention to extend support and offer their members as ‘additional emergency service’. By this time there were already 1950 confirmed cases and 71 deaths. On that very day, 407 cases were confirmed according to Worldometer’s website. Within this period, the delivery staff whose work is essential in keeping the nation connected were hard at work. The CWU’s assessment did not put into consideration the very fact they are accusing the business of: ‘looking at the crisis through a profitmaking lens.’ Their response effectively reproduced the very approach the business itself is taking to this crisis. To this end, putting the industrial action on hold is truly a mistake. Moreover, the accusation that Rico Back, the CEO of Royal Mail, is planning to use executive action to implement changes in the business without consultation with the CWU, could also be made of Dave Ward and Terry Pullinger who signed the 17 March press release. Their decision to offer up the workers as emergency response team and their refusal to act on the result of the industrial action, was made without consultation of its members. This was an arbitrary decision whose effects are very telling. They appear, in this decision, to be acting as a second tier of management for the workers rather than carrying out the workers’ will.

It is funny too that in response to Royal Mail’s refusal to consider and implement some of CWU’s recommended emergency service principles, they are writing to and seeking the support of a Tory government who has taken several measures at silencing the voices of the workers. This is the second time in under four months that the CWU members have seen their overwhelming votes for industrial action turned down (the first was by court injunction for very flippant reasons). One would wonder if working alongside the Tory government is going to be the way forward?

Since when has the Tory government become the government that gives an ear to the voices of the workforce, or working class for that matter? Their position and disregard for the safety of the workforce was once again made apparent in the shambolic manner in which the PM, Johnson, managed the inception of the crisis and what follows. Ultimately, a policy that screamed out ‘Businesses first before human lives!’. The gallant NHS workers who are on the frontline of the crisis, as a result, are left begging for PPE as were the courageous Royal Mail employees. A good course of action for the CWU would have been: solidarity. To team up with other unions in demanding for the protection of the workforce. To serve as a collective voice of the workforce; stating workers’ demands to the government rather than operating as a co-management of Royal Mail and the Tory government by dissolving our hard-fought ballot for industrial action. While this is going on, the profit-mongers are strengthening and intensify their strategy while workers are left exposed daily to the dangers that comes with Covid-19, and their voices stifled.

We cannot continue to expose our lives to danger for shareholders who do not care about our safety and wellbeing. The CWU officials have been doing great in educating members, through all available means, on their rights and in proving answers to questions through Q&A video conferences. However, the fears about safety are still mounting, especially for the posties on the streets of the United Kingdom every day.  The CWU must take decisive action in seeing to the protection of its members.

A Royal Mail spokesman said: ‘We have already introduced a range of new social distancing measures aimed at offering further protection to our colleagues and our customers.’ He further added that workers have been provided with gloves and hand sanitisers and that all communal areas across Royal Mail sites are being disinfected on a daily basis. Royal Mail’s website in confirming the agreement reached with CWU on sick pay and attendance noted also that ‘we are keeping our ways of working under continuous review’.

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