‘Grave concerns’ over treating covid like normal workplace absence

We are gravely concerned following recent contacts by our representatives at certain sites advising us that their employer has downgraded Covid to a normal absence. This change in the absence procedures means workers who come into contact or catch Covid will be faced with disciplinary action and possibly dismissal if they don’t turn up to work.

Even more concerning is that this latest variant, Omicron, is understood to be even more transmissible and that such a decision can and will lead to our members falling ill and, in some cases, leading to workers’ deaths. As Boris Johnson announced his decision to implement Plan B across the UK it was noticeable for his lack of concern for working people who are not office-based. With no provisions in place to protect our key workers who will once again be left to fend for themselves.

John James, Wales regional officer, commented: “As bosses probably taking the opportunity for an early Christmas break start to work from home I find it disgraceful that they are making decisions that may lead to their employees becoming ill. It’s unsatisfactory that front line workers’ health and safety is being viewed on a profit and loss balance sheet rather than as human beings.”

A worker at the site told us how angry they were that employers are even considering this move; that some bosses have decided that the time is now right to treat Covid as the flu is shameful.

Mark McHugh, regional organiser from Scotland said: “By including Covid in the absence procedure it will mean employers being able to stop any payments to workers who need to follow the government guidelines. During the last 18 or so months, it was excluded to protect workers, and this meant workers being able to afford to do the right thing. We are too well aware of how, when faced with such situations, the workers feel they have no option but to turn into work and there is also evidence that suggests Covid doesn’t stop at the factory gate but spreads into the wider community”.

At our recent National Safety Committee, representatives expressed real concerns and fears that any employer who moved to this position will cause even bigger outbreaks such as were witnessed in the meat processing and food sectors last year with many resulting in deaths to these essential workers. The failure of the government, and with no demands from the Labour leadership to ensure employers protect workers and enable them to comply with government rules, once again shows how out of touch politicians are with people.

The BFAWU is not prepared to accept our members’ lives being put at risk and if employers fail to protect our members, we will be forced into taking industrial action to protect these courageous workers who kept going to work to keep the nation fed.

Shelly Asquith, health and safety policy officer at the Trades Union Congress said: “Covid-related absence must not be recorded as normal sickness within attendance management policies. To do so runs a risk of workers failing to self-isolate when necessary, through fear of disciplinary action, and instead bringing Covid infection into a workplace, causing others to become sick. This is a dangerous and counterproductive policy which managements must refrain from imposing on the workforce.”

With an already broken distribution network, strikes will make household products even harder to purchase in the new year and we urge the public to support workers in our industry. We will be naming and shaming those employers in the new year who don’t step back from this outrageous move and instead recognise their duty to protect their workers and we will be conducting strike ballots that will harm their balance sheets.

The BFAWU is also disappointed to receive correspondence from the Health and Safety Executive stating inclusion of covid in absence management procedures was not part of their remit. “The issues you have raised with us fall under the remit of ACAS,” they said in response to being contacted by the BFAWU. We question why, when they have a duty to protect workers’ health and safety, they are failing to offer advice to employers that this is a high-risk strategy.

We are clear that this is about profits for some employers and it’s not acceptable they treat our member’s lives with so little regard.

Janet Newsham from Hazards commented: “In the middle of a pandemic it is disgusting if employers are starting to discipline workers for being ill with Covid. Many workers have been infected in their workplaces, on their way to work, or while they have been carrying out work activities.

“Employers have a responsibility to society as well as their workers to ensure that they do all they can to support their workers and to put in place reasonable adjustments if they have been left with long covid. We also need employers to put in place mitigation to prevent infections and protect workers, their family members, and their communities.

“If employers discipline workers, then many workers will not get tested, will continue to work if they are not too ill and will infect others and that will be disastrous for work, their workers and their communities.”