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Guidance 'not working'

Firms ‘confused by, or flouting virus rules’

Richard Leonard in scarf

Richard Leonard: ‘guidance isn’t working’ (pic: Terry Murden)

UPDATED 2pm: Pressure is mounting on the Scottish Government to issue clearer guidance over which businesses should remain open during the coronavirus lockdown.

A number of companies, including Diageo, Sky and Morgan Sindall, have faced criticism in recent days, though all insist they are following government advice on social distancing.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and the trade unions say some some companies are either confused or are deliberately flouting new rules which puts workers’ health at risk.

Mr Leonard said the guidance “clearly isn’t working” and has demanded ministers make clear that companies producing or selling non-essential goods and services must not insist on employees turning up for work.

His intervention follows a number of reports of organisations flouting social distancing rules and continuing business-as-usual. Trade unions have urged alcoholic drinks producers to suspend production.

Some continue to operate in circumstances where workers say social distancing is impossible.

The Scottish Government’s advice is that businesses whose activity is not “essential or material to the effort against the virus or to the wellbeing of society”, and which cannot “practise safe social distancing and comply with all other standard health and safety requirements” should cease activity.

Mr Leonard said: “Since the lockdown began, workers and their trade unions have been repeatedly raising concerns about businesses flouting the official guidance.

“The First Minister made clear that if employers cannot ‘ensure that there are safe social distancing practices in place’, then the ‘advice is, you shouldn’t be continuing to operate at this time’.

“Ministers have issued advice, but it clearly isn’t working. We now need the Scottish Government to work with the Health and Safety Executive on a plan to force companies which are putting profits before safety to cease their activities.

“Workers need a cast iron guarantee, right now, that they will not lose their jobs or their pay if they refuse to work in unsafe conditions and endanger the public at large.

An SNP MP has also expressed alarm at the alleged pressures being applied to workers at a marketing company.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress raised concerns over conditions at Sky call centres and attempts by some companies to use the current furloughing of employees to change contracts and working hours when they return to work.

Sky said it was taking steps to protect staff, who have been designated as key workers, as well as customers. They said engineers could also refuse a visit if they did not feel safe.

Trade union Unite has called on whisky giant Diageo to halt production at its bottling and distilling operations over workplace safety concerns and rising levels of stress.

Despite the company adhering to government social distancing measures there remain ongoing safety concerns including the communal use of workplace canteens and toilets with up to 200 workers based at some plants.

A Diageo spokesperson said: “We would never ask any employee to work in an environment that we believe is not safe for them to do so, nor would we operate any site unless it is responsible and appropriate to do so.”

Unite has now called for ‘tougher measures’ to be applied to construction companies as some keep building sites open despite the Scottish Government ordering those not linked to the health service to close.

The union said it had been inundated by reports that construction workers were continuing to turn up to work at non-essential construction sites and were having to use public transport or shared transport in order to comply with employer requests or face losing wages. 

Morgan Sindall, the main contractor for the £250 million Sighthill regeneration project in Glasgow, was criticised for its plan to resume work today.

Pat Rafferty, Unite Scottish Secretary, described its intentions as “absolutely staggering”.

The company later reversed its decision, citing confusion caused by contradictory guidance for construction from Holyrood and Westminster.

Mr Rafferty said: The Scottish Government’s instruction is not being adhered to and tougher measures must be brought forward with immediate effect. We need to ensure that workers’ pay including the self-employed are not harmed by the decision to close construction sites down which is why many workers continue to turn up.

“Many construction workers regularly shift between direct employment, self-employment and agency work. The reality of this means that there is confusion between what schemes they can access.  

“This is why construction workers should be declared as employees and covered by the employee income support scheme.”

Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct retail chain had intended to remain open but was forced to backtrack after a public outcry.

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