Health and safety “might not grab the headlines … but that work is vital”. Opening the weekend’s virtual conference for UNISON’s water, environment and transport service group (WET), Ruth Davies (pictured above), the chair of the service group executive, paid tribute to the members who have helped keep the country going in the pandemic.
The virus has had a “devastating impact”, she noted. It has been like “nothing we’ve experienced before, and safety has had to be paramount”.
But Ms Davies said that it was a “demonstration of the strength of our union and our reps that we have carried on.
“Thanks for all that’s been delivered since our last conference” in June 2019.
And health and safety dominated conference business.
John Jones, for the service group executive, told delegates that “health and safety is one of the main reasons people join UNISON” – a situation that “will no doubt continue in a post-pandemic world of work”.
During COVID-19, the union’s health and safety reps have been the first point of contact for employees to ensure their employer has made things COVID secure.
Pointing out that some employers in the industry initially held rather lax views about the government instruction to work from home wherever possible, he continued by noting that, once the argument was won, it was then a challenge to “ensure members were remotely working from home in a safe manner with adequate equipment provided and funded by employers”.
Delegates agreed with Mr Jones’s call for the executive to “engage with all relevant partners to determine a future policy around hybrid/home working as it looks to be the way of work in the short if not long term”.
Becky Ward from Southern Counties Water pointed out that companies had not been taking the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE) properly. Some PPE held within the industry was handed to the NHS – “we supported this” – but replacement PPE for water workers was not sourced fast enough, meaning that “our staff were at risk.”
Executive vice-chair Brian Scrutton-Morgan added: “Our employers have a responsibility to ensure that our members” have the correct clothing to protect them. A “haphazard approach … saw members paying the price”.
Moving a motion for the United Utilities branch, Iryna Davies emphasised the increased risks to health and safety of shift working, citing research on the negative impact of shift work on the body of worker and on “cognitive performance”.
Delegates supported the call for the executive to work with UNISON’s health and safety unit to “evaluate the scale of the problem and develop a guide for branches to use to evaluate the potential of recompense for members affected as well as reducing the necessity of shift working”.
Similarly, conference backed another motion from the United Utilities branch on the problem of noise, with Steve Daly pointing out that workers in the industry were “exposed to levels of noise that puts their hearing at risk.”
Ms I Davies also highlighted the issue of fatigue in the water industry as a result of “staffing levels being butchered to the bone”. She noted that the industry is male dominated and a “bit of a macho culture” means that problems are going unreported.
The climate emergency was also high on the agenda, with Ruth Davies for the executive telling delegates. “Our members are already playing a part in this”. She highlighted how flood defences and other parts of the water industry use a lot of energy, along with transport, by its nature.
“We are not alone in UNISON in wanting a just transition to a net zero economy,” stressed Ms R Davies, but “WET workers in UNISON will be concerned about the impact necessary changes will have on them, their families, and communities. They will rightly want to have a significant say in how the UK water, environment and transport industries achieve these difficult but possible outcomes, and will determine that any transition which is ‘just’ will secure workers’ jobs and livelihoods through the process of change”.
Equalities issues raised
Equalities issues were also on the agenda. Andrew Coley from Yorkshire and Humberside, moved a motion calling for a campaign around working from home.
He explained that the Canal and Rivers Trust had announced that, in future, all staff would permanently work from home. After UNISON intervened, “a compromise was reached”, but he said that there needs to be a campaign on employers to “do the right thing” – not least when employers are refusing to recognise the additional costs to employees of working from home.
“The computers have to be powered. Lights have to be on and, in the long, cold winter, heating on. At the same time, the employers’ offices were shut down.” Utility bills for companies dropped, while the same bills rose for the workforce.
Conference called on the executive to research the scale of the problem across branches and develop negotiating advice on the issue.
Caroline Pinter, moving a motion on behalf of the national women’s committee, stressed that there is “no sector where women are paid the same as men.” Reporting the gender pay gap has been on hold because of COVID-19. “During the pandemic, the gender pay gap has increased”.
At present, because of the pay gap, “women in the UK effectively work for two months a year free”. She proposed that one part of the solution to this is to encourage more girls and women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related training and careers – including as engineers in the water industry.
For the national Black members’ committee, Aniqa Hashmi stressed the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black people, as she moved a motion calling on the executive to “work with all appropriate employers/bodies to get better protection for transport workers and especially Black members who are more vulnerable in this current crisis, and who were, and still are, already exposed to racist behaviour and attacks”.
Elaine White, for the national disabled members’ committee, outlined some of the benefits for disabled members who have been working from home during the pandemic.
Previously, when working from home has been requested as a reasonable adjustment, it has often been refused by employers, yet COVID-19 has shown that it can mean a “reduction in sickness absence among disabled workers”.
She told delegates that “UNISON has a number of tools that WET branches and stewards can use in arguing for homeworking as a reasonable adjustment, including out homeworking guide and our two new stewards’ guides to representing disabled and Deaf workers”.
For the LGBT+ national committee, Neil Crookston explained how mental health problems for LGBT+ people have risen in the pandemic.
“Galop, the LGBT+ anti-violence charity, found an escalation in the number of reports they received about hate crime and hate speech.” Some was from people blaming the LGBT+ community for the pandemic and “often included references to the Aids epidemic and COVID-19 as a ‘punishment from God’.”
He called on the executive to “seek to ensure that workforce health and wellbeing is on the bargaining agenda with all WET employers” and to “call on employers to acknowledge the importance of specialist support services, such as LGBT+ support services, and publicise them to staff, where they exist”.
And Mr Crookston also urged branches to use UNISON’s trans equality guide, along with the LGBT+ bargaining factsheets and guide to non-binary inclusion, to review policies and agreements with employers, with a view to achieving best practice”.