Coronavirus: Non-key workers forced to go into ‘risky and distressing’ jobs, MPs reveal

Rob Merrick
PA

MPs have been flooded with “distressing” evidence from staff forced to carry on going into risky workplaces by their bosses, despite the coronavirus epidemic.

They are protesting at being wrongly labelled “key workers” – despite being employed by banks, estate agents and non-essential shops – and a lack of protection when they get to offices.

The testimonies reveal staff being ordered to work closely together in small rooms, sometimes with no hand sanitiser, or with no extra cleaning even after colleagues fall ill with the virus.

Rachel Reeves, chair of the Commons business committee, said its appeal for frontline evidence had triggered more than 1,000 “often distressing” emails and tweets in just a few days.

“It’s clear that many businesses are still not doing the right thing,” she warned, adding: “This must change now. This is a health emergency – it cannot be business as usual.

“Workplaces, even those deemed ‘essential’, should be doing all they can to ensure that their workers are able to work from home or, if they do have to attend work, that they can undertake social distancing.”

And John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, urged the government to “shut down” firms he accused of “ignoring the lockdown”, saying: “They are putting all our lives at risk by their greed.”

The evidence received by Ms Reeves committee includes:

* People still working at a home furnishings firm – a staff member said: “No hand sanitisers provided. No restrictions for customers, and we’ve had people in buying new nets, curtains, paint and picture frames. Definitely not essential.”

* An outsourcing company for high-street bank HSBC – where staff have been told to turn up because there are not enough laptops for home working, or take “unpaid leave”.

A worker revealed: “There are around 70 people in a small room, where only a normal amount of cleaning is happening, and people are travelling to the office from all around Manchester on public transport.”

* An estate agent – which has categorised staff as "key workers" and told them to “continue to go on viewings where sellers will allow them”.

“Staff that have been diagnosed with coronavirus have gone home with colleagues continuing to work in the same office without cleaning taking place,” the MPs were told.

* Satellite TV engineers – who are still moving from home to home to fit or service “a luxury product not everyone is fortunate to own”.

“With a whole family home during a lockdown, it can be hard to ask them to keep their distance, especially for larger families in smaller homes. Customers also do not always respect our boundaries,” one engineer wrote.

Yet Michael Gove said last week: “If you have a problem with your Sky box, you should not be calling a technician out in order to deal with that.”

Ms Reeves warned of a future reckoning, saying: “Businesses need to stand by their workers and keep them safe. In time, businesses will have to answer for their decisions during this pandemic and whether they did the right thing.”

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