Saving the lives of the workers who are saving our lives

UNISON is committed to making sure that workers’ rights are at the centre of procurement – looking after the workers who make the equipment that helps keep our members safe

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke, there was a rush to find personal protective equipment (PPE) for key workers. But in the urgency to stay safe, nobody stopped to question who was making the PPE, and whether they were safe too.

With billions of pounds spent on PPE and other life-saving equipment since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the extent to which the public purse is contributing to, or is complicit in, human rights violations globally has worsened.

In June 2020, a Channel 4 news investigation revealed the shocking exploitation of migrant workers at Top Glove factories in Malaysia who churn out Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for companies that supply the NHS.

Whilst trying to meet demanding production targets for the pandemic, migrant workers for Top Glove factories are paid £1.08 an hour for gruelling 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week. To add to these terrible working conditions, workers were housed in over-crowded hostels with up to 24 people per room, and feared catching COVID-19 because of a lack of social distancing arrangements.

Furthermore, UNISON suspects a Malaysian factory that makes the ventilators for masks has put workers’ health and safety on the backburner in order to meet demand.

In today’s global economy, goods and services are produced in complex global supply chains built on a model of fast, low-cost production. Hundreds of sub-contracted companies are involved in the production of goods and this has led to a break down in the contractual relationship between the buyers of goods and services and the workers delivering them.

So what is UNISON doing about it?

Before the pandemic hit, UNISON had already been developing public sector training on purchasing practices to support workers’ rights in global supply chains. It is evident that, in the wake of the pandemic, this training has become even more vital to roll out across UNISON branches and activists.

UNISON head of international relations Nick Crook said: “Our members have been telling us for years that they don’t want to serve the public using goods tainted by gross exploitation. Yet few public bodies know how to procure so it reverses the “race to the bottom” in terms of workers’ rights. But using the leverage of the public purse, it is possible.”

To support the training programme UNISON has conducted extensive research into the role that public sector organisations play procurement and is conducting new research to find out what’s happening during COVID-19.

We’ve so far found that, for many local authorities, items like PPE were being bought off the shelf without any normal contracting procedures or ethical considerations. All participants interviewed by UNISON said that, in the rush to fast-track PPE, there were no ethical considerations. They also doubted that even normal procedures were upheld.

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With COVID-19 travel bans, international monitoring organisations have been unable access factories to conduct audits on working conditions. To make matters even more complicated, many sustainability staff in procurement teams have been furloughed, which has made oversight even more difficult during fast-track buying. In addition to PPE, other fast-tracked products included electronics for home-working, such as laptops and tablets.

UNISON is committed to making sure that workers’ rights are at the centre of procurement plans, and that ethical considerations in contracts should be the standard, rather than an afterthought.

This autumn, UNISON is launching a training strategy with a series of webinars followed by learning resources in the spring for branches and members to push for transparency and ethics in their procurement processes and supply chains. The webinar series, Purchasing Power: Putting Workers’ Rights at the Heart of Public Procurement, begins on 28 October.

This training applies to the pandemic and beyond and will equip UNISON members to gain a commitment from suppliers to continuously monitor supply chains for potential risk to human rights.

If the UK’s public sector is committed to ‘building back better’ after COVID-19, a holistic understanding of resilience and how to help enable workers’ to access their rights in supply chains is imperative. And UNISON is committed to leading the way on changing UK public procurement to ensure that human rights and workers’ safety are the priority.

UNISON head of international relations Nick Crook said: “Since COVID-19, there’s been a lot of talk about ‘building back better’, well when it comes to global supply chains better isn’t enough, it’s got to be different. UNISON is committed to being part of that journey.”

Further related work UNISON is doing on human rights:

· Working alongside the Global Union Federation IndustriALL to support trade union organising of workers in the global south who are supplying the UK public sector.

· Lobbying for the Modern Slavery Act to be extended to public bodies. The act currently only encourages businesses to take responsibility for their supply chains by ensuring no slavery, forced or child labour is involved in the production of goods destined for the UK.

· Writing a joint report with CORE coalition and the University of Greenwich, advocating for new regulation on procurement and a Failure to Prevent (human rights abuse) law which would put people and planet above cost or profit.