Workers mobilise over covid-19 threat, as Northern Ireland Executive divides

Workers demands for safe workplaces during the covid19 crisis, produced by CWI Ireland

The Covid-19 pandemic is everywhere exposing the dirty underbelly of modern capitalism. In  Northern Ireland, decades of attacks by Tory and New Labour governments in Westminster, and from local parties, on NHS services, have left health and social care services understaffed and chronically under-resourced. 

As a result, the healthcare sector in the North has fewer intensive care unit (ICU) beds than the Republic of Ireland and significantly less than England. The UK, as a whole, has four times fewer ICU beds than Germany. 

A precarious working-class face Covid-19

But it is not just the impact of austerity policies or the outsourcing of NHS services that is in question: the pandemic has exposed the normalisation of precarious working practices among the working-class. When amidst the first UK-wide shutdown the hospitality sector was forced to close its doors, tens of thousands were effectively made redundant in silence. Across pubs, restaurants and hotels those holding zero-hours contracts were simply told that they were not required. Casual workers, those with less than one year’s employment history, and agency workers were also dismissed in short fashion – with no rights. Even when later the Tory government’s income guarantee measure was introduced, the 80 per cent wage protection it offered was not extended to these groups of workers or to students, with part-time workers only benefiting minimally.

Since the 2008 economic crash, the number self-employed in the North has grown rapidly. While some of this increase reflected the large number of workers who had sought to make a living through self-employment after losing steady nine to five jobs in the deep recession which followed the crash – a recession which Northern Ireland was only about to exit – many more were bogus self-employed workers (e.g. those formerly directly employed in the likes of construction sites were forced to work as contractors; taxi owners adopted some aspects of the Uber business model and no longer employed drivers directly). 

These workers were also excluded from the initial income guarantee measure and were only afforded some protection when the government was forced by growing pressure to extend it to many, but not all, the self-employed.

Covid-19 intersects the politics of Northern Ireland

As an understanding of the unavoidable nature and the severity of the Covid-19 virus epidemic permeated among working-people, there was an initial stunning effect driven by fear and concern about the threat. In Northern Ireland, this turned relatively quickly into anger as the local Assembly government at the Stormont buildings, which was tied to implementing the policies of the UK, as a whole – policies driven by the heartless ‘herd immunity’ theories which had been adopted by the Conservative government. 

The theory of ‘herd immunity’ was tied to the idea expounded by Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the nation had to “take it on the chin” and accept the human losses which were unavoidable as the disease passed through the population. The result was, unlike in the Republic, Northern Ireland did not shut down schools and other public facilities – which left many asking why with a virus which did not respect international boundaries, there were two different regimes of infection control in Ireland. 

As with everything in Northern Ireland, it was always likely that Covid-19 would become a sectarian football but the north-south disparity certainly made that unavoidable.  The newly restored Stormont power-sharing government had been relatively harmonious but once again diverging positions on whether to advance to a shutdown in conjunction with Dublin or London divided the parties along nationalist-unionist lines. These differences were made very public through unusually sharp exchanges between protagonists in the main two parties of government, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party.

Communities in advance of the politicians

But while the parties were at loggerheads once again – with the DUP having the advantage of UK law prevailing in Northern Ireland – things were changing on the ground. At first, there was a wave of Catholic schools which decided to take the cue from the Republic and shut down. Within days this started to Protestant schools. Even where schools did not shut, parents started removing their children. The writing was on the wall, a shutdown was coming.

A similar situation was exhibited when on St Patrick’s Day every pub in the South was closed but pubs and hotels in the North remained open. In some northern border towns, pubs closed voluntarily under local community pressure to avoid the risk of contagion. In many cases – including in many nationalist areas – the landlords kept open and enjoyed a bumper day with a huge surge of drinkers from the Republic. 

British government shutdown raises working-class concern

Whether or not this unravelling of the Tory policy on the ground in Northern Ireland had any part to play in it, the British government itself moved to introduce the first step in its shutdown policy. This opened the door to the Northern Ireland Executive (the governing power-sharing body) adopting this and applying it immediately to the North. With its application, the dissension and tension between the parties lessened very considerably.

In the aftermath of the announcement, which actually meant that the UK had leap-frogged ahead of the Republic in terms of the rigour of its lockdown, the dominant theme in the mass media was to reinforce the need for social isolation and to stay at home. Despite this messaging, the next day across much of the economy workers had to present for work; there was a total lack of clarity over what ‘essential’ businesses would continue to operate. 

It was perhaps to be expected that workers maintaining utilities, those involved in the production of health-related equipment, and medicines and foods, would be classified as key workers along with health, social care and emergency workers and those in public transport. But when virtually every manufacturer continued to operate as normal it led to rising confusion and then mounting anger.

Employers in aerospace manufacture, those producing doors, windows, electronics, concrete pipes, wooden fence poles and luxury carpets, all made the case that they were essential. The entire construction sector claimed their sites were ‘essential’ as well. 

While a worker could be stopped and fined for coming within two metres of someone on the street, they were expected to work shoulder to shoulder with colleagues on the shop floor. While people were being told to avoid hand-shaking, to wash their hands or use hand sanitiser to protect themselves, when it came to ensuring profits continued to roll in for the boss the workers were expected to freely handle the same equipment or press the same check-in button with hundreds of workplace colleagues. 

At some workplaces, workers started to develop symptoms and were forced to self-isolate. In some cases, employers attempted to cover up the identities of those workers with symptoms – meaning work colleagues could not be sure if they were at risk themselves. In other workplaces, bosses refused to conduct workspace deep-cleanses. At virtually every workplace, canteen or changing room workers continued to operate shoulder to shoulder.

The revulsion of workers at the disparity of the words telling them of the importance of infection control precautions and the reality in the factories and workplaces grew, as did a clear understanding of its root in the employers’ drive for profits. After a day of mounting anger, the largest and most effectively unionised workplace in the private sector, Bombardier, was largely forced into a temporary shutdown, with furloughed workers receiving 80 percent of their pay. Workers elsewhere across manufacturing – especially in the North’s large Aerospace sector – started to raise similar demands.

Meatpackers lead the way

Employees in unionised meat packing companies, in particular, those which had exhibited industrial militancy in the last twelve months, organised walkouts – at first, eighty workers at ABP Meats in Lurgan and then several hundred at Moy Park in Portadown. The issue of infection control, in particular, and the denial of social distancing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) dominated the media as workers across the entire manufacturing sector started to expose what they were experiencing. 

In general, the demand in non-food manufacturing was for a temporary or partial shutdown with workers furloughed on full or 80 per cent pay. In essential workplaces e.g. retail, the demand was for rigorous social distancing and PPE. 

Workers in the public sector who were also demanding social distancing and PPE were also becoming vocal and once again the self-activity of workers put huge pressure on Stormont. 

While the DUP claimed they backed the right of all workers to safe workplaces, they defended the necessity of non-essential businesses remaining open as they claimed closing them would result in long-term structural economic damage and job-losses. Sinn Fein eventually responded to the wave of walkouts and the tsunami of workers’ complaints by calling for the closure of non-essential businesses and any essential businesses which could not guarantee workers’ safety. For the second time in a week, the Stormont Executive was divided and incapable of deciding a course.

For all the assurances of both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister that protections were a necessity, they took absolutely no action to enforce them. The numbers of complaints to the Health & Safety Executive reportedly spiked a hundredfold, but they received no additional human resources or more importantly powers leaving them unable to act. 

The wave of walkouts continued with about 60 workers at Linden Foods in Dungannon refusing to enter for several hours. Like the other walkouts, this one resulted in a commitment to improvements from bosses but again there was no action from Stormont.

Growing numbers of non-essential businesses were by this stage being forced to shut down by workers ‘voting with their feet’ or public opprobrium. In retailers, some of the worse practices were being denied and somewhat addressed. Social distancing was mainstreamed in many retail outlets. 

Factors underpinning widespread worker radicalisation

The factors driving the wave of walkouts and growing militancy among workers was not just fear of catching the disease but the financial pressure caused by the specific form of the income guarantee scheme introduced by the UK government. 

Under the scheme, workers can only avail of the scheme if their employer agrees. Those workers in non-essential industries who wish to avoid the risk of catching Covid-19 by not going to work but whose boss refuses to either shut down or furlough for a section of their workforce have only one option to take sick leave. With few private-sector workers having decent sickness protections in their contract this means they have to draw on statutory sick pay – a meagre £94.25 a week. By comparison, those who manage to act collectively – the only way possible to negotiate with employers from a position of strength – can guarantee at least 80 per cent pay for the duration.

While unionised or near-unionised workplaces sought to negotiate collectively, those without any union sought to ‘name and shame’ greedy employers. This resulted in a stream of constant challenges to employers and what is likely to be a further, significant radicalisation of workers. 

Where there were no trade unions, workers approached politicians they thought might represent their interests best. Where socialists were present they were often the first port of call, but often it was Sinn Fein and other parties, even including the DUP.

One case where workers approached the DUP was that of a workforce largely composed of migrant workers in Linden Foods. In the week preceding their walkout, they approached any receptive politician they could. These politicians in turn went to the press to try and expose the cramped conditions inside, but one party was worse than silent: Sinn Fein. In perhaps an illustrative exposure of that party’s cross-class social base, a local Sinn Fein councillor, a relative of the local constituency Sinn Fein MP, and a close associate of the Sinn Fein northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, held a prominent management position in the company. While the other politicians were trying to highlight the conditions inside, he was busy denying any problem existed. 

At the end of a week of wildcat walkouts and a surge of workers looking to trade unions for support, one company brought forward a brutal jobs-loss announcement which cut across the growing sense of working-class empowerment. Thompson Aerospace, a company where Unite the union, only recently gained recognition and one with a strong team of workplace reps, announced that 330 agency workers would be made redundant in what was clearly a slapback at the demands of the workforce. 

Further lockdowns

Announcements increasing the rigour of the lockdown in the UK and the Republic have followed – new guidelines on what is essential have been issued in the South and in the North a partnership committee involving the trade union bureaucracy has been established. Additional powers have been passed by the Executive parties meaning they may now be able to intervene to a greater extent.

It would appear likely that many workplaces will improve their approach to infection control considerably but there is still no clarity on what is an essential manufacturing business or action on the construction sector. It is possible – even likely – that we might see further lockdowns. 

Looking forward, it seems likely that the focus of growing militancy among the working-class will divert to the chronic failure of Stormont to provide proper PPE and Covid-19 testing for frontline NHS workers. Nurses in the wards dealing with Covid-19 patients are being forced to plead for facemasks on social media and already their calls are being met not by the government but by those in other workplaces who are donating their stocks. 

Things cannot go back the way they were

Covid-19 has resulted in a radicalisation of workers in Northern Ireland. There is a saying you hear quite a lot – ‘Things cannot go back as they were’. The wave of wild-cat walkouts and the turn of workers across the economy to trade unions was organically cross-community and included centrally highly-exploited migrant workers. At the same time, the growing pressure was also reflected in the Northern Ireland Executive through the sharpening of the tensions between the parties along communitarian lines. 

As ever in Northern Ireland, the national question is implicitly tied to the social one.

The absence of a party of the working-class with a socialist programme was felt keenly in the last week. Such a party could have intervened decisively to head up the wave of walkouts. Building a party that can cut across the divisive politics that dominate Northern Ireland is an urgent priority: steps to build it must at least be taken now, even under the most difficult of circumstances and in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. 


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April 2020