Disabled workers have had their rights repeatedly breached during the coronavirus pandemic, the annual conference of disabled trade unionists has heard.
The TUC disabled workers’ conference heard how disabled workers had been forced by employers to risk their lives by attending work, while others had had to fight for employers to make reasonable adjustments for them during the pandemic.
One delegate told the online conference yesterday (Wednesday) that millions of disabled workers were now at risk of redundancy, disadvantage and harassment.
Sian Stockham, a care worker from the public services union UNISON, said a disproportionate number of disabled workers had died from COVID-19 during the crisis.
She said: “This may be because we have been forced to go to work despite the risks, with some employers failing to protect our health and safety.”
She said this included those working with people dying of COVID in care homes.
She said: “Many haven’t had a risk assessment and the provision of [personal protective equipment] has been totally inadequate.
“We have had reports of workers forced to use the same single-use disposable mask for days.”
But she added: “I don’t want us to go back to normal, not if it means disabled workers will still have to struggle to get the reasonable adjustments they need, or if it means care workers are too scared to stand up for their rights to work.”
She said UNISON was calling for “the strongest rights to reasonable adjustments” for disabled workers, and for the right to work from home.
Nikki Fitzsimmons, from the shop workers’ union USDAW, said disabled workers had been “at the sharp end of discrimination and injustice before the pandemic” but the resulting crisis had made this even worse.
She said: “Millions of disabled workers are at risk of redundancy, disadvantage and harassment.
“Thousands of us are fighting for reasonable adjustments to be put into place, but thousands more are working with their unions to right these wrongs and stop them from happening in the first place.”
A food retail manager for 17 years, she was sent home to shield at the start of the crisis after being told she was clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus.
But after three months at home on full pay, she was demoted from manager to general assistant, with her weekly hours cut from 36 to 17 hours, and her take-home pay halved.
She said: “I lost my position, a huge part of my earnings and my confidence.”
In the autumn, she was told to return to work in a petrol filling station and repeatedly had to self-isolate as colleagues tested positive for the virus, before being asked to shield again when the government’s advice changed.
She said: “I’m still at home on statutory sick pay, topped up by 17 hours a week on contractual pay.
“My experience as a disabled worker in this pandemic is not unique, I’m sure of that.”
Elane Heffernan, from the University and College Union, said she could not name a single employer in further and higher education who had “addressed the needs of disabled members at the start of the first lockdown, or even the second or third, actually”.
Claire Stewart, from the NASUWT teachers’ union, told the conference: “Now is the time for unions to remind employers of the fact that a failure to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, including adjustment to redundancy criteria and procedures, is a form of unlawful discrimination.
“We must demand that government takes steps to ensure that disabled people are not unlawfully targeted for redundancy and that those who want to work are appropriately supported to do so.”
Ann Galpin, from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), co-chair of the TUC’s disabled workers’ committee, said lobbying by the NUJ and other unions in the creative industries had failed to prevent disabled freelancers being excluded from the government’s income support scheme for self-employed workers.
She said this had “left many of our disabled members without enough income as their work dried up”.
And she said an NUJ survey in January had revealed that eight in 10 disabled members who responded had not had the reasonable adjustments they needed organised through their workplace since the start of the pandemic.
Dave Allan, representative of disabled members on the TUC general council, and Galpin’s co-chair on the disabled workers’ committee, told the conference that – a year on from the start of the pandemic – many disabled workers were still working from home without the reasonable adjustments they needed.
He said: “We have heard that, a year on, some disabled workers are still working off ironing boards or without the specialist software they require. This is not acceptable.
“Workplace protections under the Equality Act have not changed under the pandemic.
“Employers need to meet their legal duties and put in place the adjustments workers need to do their jobs.
“Our members should not dread going into work because they believe they are being set up to fail.”
But he also said that there had been a “home working revolution” for disabled people, even though they had been told for years that this was not possible, and that this “must not fade away when the pandemic is past”.
Allan said that employers must “put in place and keep in place members’ reasonable adjustments, including home working, and we must ensure home working is at the worker’s request and not the employer’s demands”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said disabled workers who were having to shield from the virus should have the right to furlough – where the government pays a portion of their monthly wages if there is no work for them to do during lockdown – and not rely on “the whim of their employer”.
O’Grady said that “they have the right as a worker to protect themselves and make that judgement themselves”.
She also called for all workers to have the right to work from home.
She said: “We’ve shown that it can be done. Give it to workers as a right. Or let’s claim that right for ourselves.”
In a statement issued ahead of the conference, the disabled workers’ committee pointed to official figures which showed that redundancy rates had been 62 per cent higher for disabled workers than their non-disabled peers.
The committee said other figures showed disabled workers were overrepresented in insecure work, while they were “bearing a disproportionate burden in keeping the country running during the current crisis… working long hours to keep shelves stocked, hospitals clean and goods delivered to those who can’t leave their homes”.
It called on the government to take measures to protect disabled workers, including banning zero hours contracts, guaranteeing all workers employment rights from day one of their employment, bringing in mandatory reporting by employers on their disability pay gap, and ensuring that disabled people are not unlawfully targeted for redundancy.
Earlier, tributes were paid by the conference to Seán McGovern, who until his death last May had co-chaired the disabled workers’ committee.
Allan said he had been “one of the true heroes of both the trade union movement and the disabled people’s movement, and he effortlessly brought the two together”.
He said: “He was a tireless champion of disabled people.
“His passion, dedication and strategic insight will be sorely missed, and so will his sense of humour, his flawless style, and the grace with which he conducted himself.”
O’Grady said McGovern had been “a good friend” and a “kind and decent man”, but also an “incredibly principled and inspirational champion for disabled workers”.
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