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Precarious workers demand campus shutdown and furlough with COVID-19 declared ‘Major Incident’ in London

19 January 2021 09:51
  • With COVID-19 declared a ‘major incident’ in London, precarious workers are still being compelled to provide cleaning and security services in non-essential buildings.
  • Workers from IWGB’s Universities of London branch demand immediate closure of all non-essential university sites and for workers to be sent home on furlough.
  • IWGB warns of health risk posed by a widespread failure of London universities and businesses to abide by Covid-19 safety rules and grant furlough where possible.

With COVID-19 declared a ‘major incident’ in London, precarious workers are still being compelled to provide cleaning and security services in non-essential buildings, while many doing essential work remain on zero hours contracts without adequate financial support if they have to self-isolate. The Universities of London branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) are demanding hazard pay for essential work and the immediate closure of all non-essential sites, with those workers to be placed on furlough.

Dozens of IWGB members working at London universities have contracted Covid-19 since the start of the year, with at least 20 self-isolating with symptoms at UCL alone. This comes as the Observer reports no companies have been prosecuted and fined for breaking Covid-19 safety rules since the start of the current lockdown.

The IWGB wrote to universities on 21 December requesting the closure of non-essential buildings infection rates and received no response. On 4 January, London universities told workers to come back to campus. The lockdown was announced that evening. The IWGB THEN wrote a joint letter with the University and College Union (UCU) to the University of London which again received no response.

Workers are also being compelled to attend non-essential university buildings at University College London, University of London, University of Greenwich, Goldsmiths University, University of Roehampton, Royal College of Art and London South Bank University. The city has the highest infection rate per capita in England, as the UK reached 100,000 deaths this past week. The NHS is in danger of being overcome and London is 5,000 beds short. One in every 30 people are thought to be infected with the virus.

Henry Chango-Lopez, General Secretary of the IWGB, says: “The widespread failure of universities and other London businesses to offer furlough to low-income workers and shut down non-essential buildings has undoubtedly worsened the city’s Covid crisis. We need essential rights for all essential workers and meaningful enforcement of Covid safety rules because businesses are still putting profit before peoples’ lives. The rights of our city’s precarious workers are now a public health issue.”

Maritza Castillo Calle, chair, IWGB Universities of London Branch, says: “I’m now home sick with Covid-19 after being compelled to work through lockdown as a janitor in an empty office. It’s been a painful, frightening and debilitating illness. I don’t want to see more people getting sick and losing their lives because universities wanted to keep up their profits. That’s why we’re demanding furlough for non-essential workers and hazard pay and basic rights for those who are essential. Medical research and university hospitals could not operate without them and it’s the least they deserve for the risks they are taking.”

Jenny, University of London library worker (anonymised due to fear of reprisals) says: "There has been no consultation with staff and seems to be no awareness of how serious the pandemic is in London. The university is running virtual services but keeping the library open while the nation is in lockdown. This is reckless. There’s no consideration for us, the NHS or public health.”

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