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Passport workers forced back to offices as Home Office shirks its duty of care
PCS shop steward
I work for the civil service and am a member and rep of the PCS trade union. Like many of my colleagues, I was shocked and appalled at the Home Office's decision to call workers at passport offices back into the workplace after a three week hiatus due to concerns over Covid-19.
This move is contradictory to official government guidance which advises people to stay at home and avoid all non-essential travel, and it will understandably worry and anger many Passport Office workers.
It is completely contradictory to the department's duty of care to its workers. It also contradicts the department's earlier approach. This was to close all offices for three weeks, after the government, already dragging its heels, announced stricter conditions for tackling the spread of the virus on 23 March.
What has changed since then? The amount of Covid-19 cases reported in the UK has increased on a daily basis and, tragically, so has the number of people who have died. In fact, the government and health professionals still can't say when the peak of the outbreak will arrive! So what is the justification for forcing workers back to offices now?
Shockingly, the Home Office has reportedly tried to justify this move by stating that 80% of the population will contract Covid-19 anyway, and that "we cannot hide away from it forever". They also claimed: "You are no more at risk at the workplace as you would be at home or at the supermarket."
It is true that passports cannot be issued from home due to staff not being issued with laptops and other equipment, as has been the case in other government departments, and because the software required it cannot be put onto personal devices at present.
But why should workers pay for this? Many of them are on or just above minimum wage and are being told to risk their lives and the lives of loved ones they live with.
It is also hardly essential work, with people currently unable to go on holiday or business trips abroad due to the crisis. The only alleged essential work involved would be the issuing of passports to people who need them for purposes such as claiming benefits.
But according to PCS members in the Department for Work and Pensions, it isn't true that passports are required for this. If it were the case, then the department should put in place very limited cover, only asking workers who aren't vulnerable, don't live with anyone who is vulnerable, and are showing no symptoms, to come into the office.
Even under these circumstances, other health issues should be taken into consideration, such as mental health, and nobody should be forced to return to work or face disciplinary action.
Moreover, why can't the department pay to have laptops with the required software on them sent to workers' homes and avoid anybody having to risk going into the office?
Equally worrying has been general secretary of the PCS Mark Serwotka's approach to the Covid-19 crisis. While Serwotka has correctly described the Home Office approach as "cavalier" and condemned the move, he has done so in words only, asking that offices are closed during the crisis.
His approach has been to let the bosses off the hook, effectively suspending negotiations over pay, office closures and other issues. As well as standing up for members' health and safety, and for a maximum number of workers to be able to work from home, Serwotka should not falter but push for all PCS policies!
For full resourcing of departments, the stopping of permanent office closures and a 10% pay rise for all. It is the underfunding of public services that has exacerbated the problems in tackling the coronavirus crisis.
In The Socialist 15 April 2020:
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