POLITICS
10/09/2020 08:19 BST | Updated 10/09/2020 08:33 BST

Firms Using Covid Crisis To 'Squeeze More Out Of Staff'

Bosses are telling staff "sign up to a new contract which is worse or you’re out", says union boss Frances O'Grady.

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Firms forcing new contracts on workers after using taxpayers’ cash to pay wages during lockdown are guilty of a “betrayal of good faith”,  a trade union boss has said. 

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said workers are increasingly being told “sign up to a new contract which is worse or you’re out” by firms as the Covid-19 crisis bites. 

It comes amid criticism of a number of companies, including British Gas-owned Centrica and British Airways (BA). 

Centrica told thousands of workers in July if they failed accept new working conditions, including no overtime pay, they risked their jobs.

Meanwhile, BA had told thousands of cabin crew to choose between an enhanced redundancy package or they would have to reapply for a similar job at much lower pay.

Both firms accepted public money under chancellor Rishi Sunak’s emergency wages scheme after lockdown was imposed. 

O’Grady said firms were exploiting the crisis to “squeeze more out of their employees”.  

In an interview with HuffPost UK, she said: “It’s not just the trade union movement that is worried about that naked opportunism of ‘sign up to a new contract which is worse or you’re out’. 

“That feels more like 19th Century management practice than what you would expect from companies that have been supported by the taxpayer, that have loyal workforces or that have had mature arrangements with unions. 

“It’s a betrayal of good faith.” 

She added: “It’s not good enough to opportunistically use this crisis to squeeze more out of their employees.”

Employers must do their civic duty and make sure workers can self-isolate on full pay. But where bosses can’t or won’t the government must step in.Frances O'Grady, TUC general secretary
PA Archive/PA Images
TUC General secretary Frances O'Grady

It comes as new polling for the TUC by BritainThinks reveals four in 10 workers will be left in financial hardship if forced to self-isolate for two weeks on statutory sick pay of £96 a week.

O’Grady said unless the government enhanced the sick pay package for workers, NHS Test and Trace would fail. 

She said: “We can’t have a situation where people are forced to choose between their health and paying their bills.  

“Employers must do their civic duty and make sure workers can self-isolate on full pay. But where bosses can’t or won’t the government must step in. 

“Unless ministers fix this gaping hole in our safety net Britain will be ill-prepared for a second wave of infections or more local lockdowns.” 

O’Grady said the government must not try to force people back to work, despite fears of an economic hit. 

She said Boris Johnson appeared to have a “tin ear” over the issue, adding: “What I think people want is confidence based on facts. They want to know workplace safety standards are tough and will be enforced. 

“We don’t need a bit of encouragement, what we need is action to make sure it is safe.” 

She said there remained workplaces that were not Covid-secure. 

“We are obviously very concerned about some parts of fast fashion, food processing - the kind of places we have been fighting to get union recognition for years and they won’t let us in and now we know why,” she said. 

O’Grady, who will lead the TUC’s annual conference, which will be virtual, later this month, also spoke out about sexism in the trade union movement. 

It comes after an independent report concluded the GMB union was institutionally sexist. 

“I’m angry is the truth,” she said. “It has to be taken really seriously.” 

“I feel like there is a whole generation of women of my age who cut their teeth fighting sexual harassment at work.

“We had to fight it on two fronts as women often do, in our own organisations and in the outside world and I’m determined that my daughters will not have to face it again - end of.” 

She added that she had experienced sexism in the trade union movement in the 70s, but added: “I also had the experience of a load of really decent men and that is true too and that is really important. 

“Clearly the kind of behaviour that is detailed in the report is not the average picture of the trade union movement.”