Sonic Healthcare is a multinational based in Australia which has subsidiaries in Germany, the US, and the UK among other places. In the UK the subsidiary is called The Doctors Laboratory (TDL). The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents “gig economy” and other precarious workers, represents TDL’s in-house couriers, who have been on the frontlines throughout the pandemic.
The union has achieved a number of victories in the past few years in response to TDL’s pay cuts and unlawful behaviour. For example, TDL knowingly denied the workforce basic workers’ rights and it was only when the IWGB took them to tribunal that TDL were forced to give the workers statutory employment rights. The IWGB is now legally pursuing the 20 years’ holiday pay the couriers have been denied. Also, in May last year the couriers were forced to go on strike after the company refused to reverse successive pay cuts. The couriers were successful and won one of the biggest victories to date in the “gig economy” in the UK.
Less than a year later TDL are now trying to claw back the couriers’ wins. As the pandemic started to take a hold of the UK, the IWGB’s lead union official at TDL, Alex Marshall, wrote to CEO David Byrne making some basic health and safety requests to protect these couriers, who were handling Covid-19 specimens. The CEO responded, refusing the requests. Of particular note for the CEO of a testing laboratory, he refused the couriers’ request for regular Covid-19 testing on the basis that the public health advice was that regular testing was of no value! This led to the union threatening legal action, which in turn achieved some modest movement from the company.
In the midst of this pandemic TDL decided to fire Joseph Williams, who was the company’s second longest-serving courier. He suffers from an underlying heart condition and diabetes which means he is high risk. The IWGB had been demanding reasonable adjustments were made for Joseph to accommodate his disability but TDL had resisted. The reason he was fired was linked to TDL failing to accommodate his disability. Joseph has instigated employment tribunal proceedings against the company over disability discrimination, which are currently ongoing.
In total TDL is engaged in four different tribunal claims brought by their couriers for different statutory breaches (holiday pay claim, unlawful deduction from wages, failure to provide rest breaks and disability discrimination).
Most recently, and despite reporting profits last year of over £25 million, and the CEO earning millions over the past few years, TDL are now looking to fire 10 of the lowest paid couriers. They say this is the result of a downturn in business due to the pandemic. As it happens, these 10 are the only couriers in the business who don’t use motorised vehicles; they either walk or use bicycles. The 10 also include some of the most active trade unionists, including Alex Marshall (mentioned above), in what is a blatant attempt to attack the union. This has led to public outrage. Hundreds of supporters have emailed TDL’s CEO as well as the CEO of Sonic Healthcare. And a number of UK politicians, including former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP and current Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights Andy McDonald MP, have written to Sonic Chairman Professor Mark Compton, expressing their concern.
The union now only has until the beginning of June to turn the firings around and is campaigning against the Sonic Healthcare management. If this doesn’t gain ground the union will be looking to engage Sonic’s shareholders next.
The General Secretary of the International Transport Federation, the General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association and the Board of the ILAW Network have all written to Sonic Healthcare to protest the treatment of low-paid workers.
BOOM, the global union movement stands with the #TDL10 !! 🌎👊— IWGB Couriers & Logistics Branch (@IWGB_CLB) May 21, 2020
"On behalf of the ITF, representing nearly 20 million workers in 150 countries, I would like to express my concern about the situation concerning unfair dismissals & trade union victimisation at TDL." 🔥🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/HEUJaMMkAx
"We need to be not just applauding our key workers, but bending over backwards, doing absolutely everything to protect them and their livelihoods." ✊✊⚡️⚡️@TSSAunion General Secretary Manuel Cortes writes to Sonic Healthcare, parent company of TDL, to defend the #TDL10 ! ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/LTWd0ZRpVq— IWGB Couriers & Logistics Branch (@IWGB_CLB) May 11, 2020
👊NO REDUNDANCIES, NO VICTIMISATION!👊— IWGB Couriers & Logistics Branch (@IWGB_CLB) May 19, 2020
Board members of the International Lawyers Assisting Workers Network, a global org of 400 worker rights lawyers from 55 countries, have written to Chair of the Board of Sonic Healthcare, the parent company of TDL in defence of the #TDL10!! pic.twitter.com/KC6UQ02VyD