It is clear that the government is trying to protect the UK economy even if this results in more people dying as a result of coronavirus. At the time of writing, whole swathes of the economy are still operating, putting lives at risk. It is now obvious that, in order to stop the spread of the virus, only those sectors of the economy essential to maintaining the health and wellbeing of society should remain open. Yet the government is refusing to shut down large sections of the economy such as online shopping.
It is bad enough that workers in shops, care homes, hospitals and offices are putting their health at risk, often with no basic safety equipment, without workers having to expose themselves to risk in non-essential industries to ensure companies like Amazon can carry on cashing in on the coronavirus crisis. It is time the government closed down all non-essential industries and directed all of our resources to trying to protect workers in those industries that have to remain open.
However, the situation is so bad and the risk so grave that we cannot wait around for the government to act. Under UK health and safety laws, every worker is entitled to refuse to work if they feel their working conditions are putting them in danger. The legal position is as follows:
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 state that employees have the right to stop work and proceed to a place of safety “if exposed to serious, imminent and unavoidable danger”.
The Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993, confirmed by the Employment Rights Act 1996, gives protection to union health and safety representatives, and ordinary workers, to raise safety concerns and act on them. It made it illegal for employers to victimise workers who:
• “leave, propose to leave, or refuse to return to a workplace (or part of it) in the event of danger they believe to be serious and imminent and could not reasonably be expected to avert;
• take appropriate steps to protect themselves and others when facing serious and imminent danger.”
The coronavirus certainly qualifies as a “serious and imminent danger” under this act, especially if your employer is failing to protect you, for example by not ensuring that there is a safe distance between workers or by not providing adequate safety equipment. The law protects workers from being disciplined for refusing to work in unsafe conditions.
Wherever possible, we urge workers to act collectively, so if you are feeling unsafe, talk to the people you work with and all refuse to work together. If that is not possible, you can refuse as an individual. When refusing to work, make sure that you make it clear to management that the reason you are refusing to work is on the grounds of health and safety and quote the above act.