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30 per cent of disabled workers treated unfairly during pandemic – TUC

Nearly one in three (30 per cent) disabled workers say that they’ve been treated unfairly at work during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new poll published by the TUC.

The survey – carried out by YouGov for the TUC – reveals that many disabled people report that they experienced significant barriers in the workplace before the pandemic, and that Covid-19 has made things worse for them.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, disabled workers were hugely underrepresented and underpaid in the labour market. The employment gap between disabled and non-disabled workers was 28 per cent. And disabled workers are paid 20 per cent less than non-disabled peers. 

Covid-19 risks undoing recent improvements in getting disabled people into work, and pushing disabled people back out of the labour market. Recent government figures show that redundancy rates are now 62 per cent higher for disabled workers 

Disabled workers told the TUC that their disability or shielding status meant they were treated unfairly, and worse than other colleagues during the pandemic. For example:

  • One in 13 (eight per cent) said they were subjected to bullying and/or harassment, being ignored or excluded, singled out for criticism or being monitored excessively at work.
  • One in eight (twelve per cent) said they were concerned their disability had affected their chances of a promotion in the future.
  • One in eight (13 per cent) said they were concerned their disability had affected how their performance would be assessed by their manager.

The poll also uncovered:

  • Shielding workers put at risk: More than one in five (21 per cent) shielding workers worked outside of their home most of the time – even though employers could use furlough to protect shielding workers who could not do their jobs from home. 
  • Hostile workplaces: One in eight (12 per cent) disabled workers told the TUC that they have not told their employer about their disability or health condition, with many of these workers fearing being treated unfairly (24%) or even losing their job (21%) if they were open about their disability or health condition. 
  • Employers failing disabled workers: only just over half (55 per cent) of those who asked their employers for reasonable adjustments during the pandemic told the TUC that they had been made in full. Almost a third (30 per cent) said they didn’t get all their reasonable adjustments, and one in six (16 per cent) said they had none implemented. The law says every employer must make reasonable adjustments for disabled members of staff so they can do their job. These may be things like providing the right type of phone for someone who uses a hearing aid, replacing a desk chair with one designed for an employee who has a back condition, or simply allowing home working.
  • Unsafe workplaces: A quarter of disabled workers (25 per cent) said they felt unsafe at work during the pandemic due to the risk of catching/spreading the virus – and this rose to nearly one in three (30 per cent) among those who worked outside their homes throughout. Of those who face additional risk to Covid-19 due to their health condition/ disability, almost half (46 per cent) have not discussed these additional risks with their employer.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Before the pandemic, disabled workers were already up against huge barriers getting into and staying in work. Covid-19 has made it even worse. 

“Employers are failing disabled workers.  Many disabled and shielding workers felt unsafe at work during the pandemic. And too many disabled workers told us their boss is breaking the law by not giving them the adjustments they need.

“We saw with the last financial crisis that disabled people are all too often first in line for redundancy. As we recover from the pandemic, we can’t afford to reverse the vital progress that disabled people have made – in the workplace and in wider society.

“Ministers must act. We need proper enforcement of disabled workers’ rights to reasonable adjustments and safety at work, and a duty on employers to report and close the pay gap between disabled and non-disabled workers.” 

10% of workers being forced back to the office, against government guidance

The TUC has today warned that employers are breaching official guidance by forcing staff to “needlessly” work in offices and other workplaces – and says that this points to wider a health and safety enforcement crisis.

New TUC polling reveals that nearly one in ten (nine per cent) staff have been put under pressure by bosses to return to the workplace – a number that rises to over 1 in 6 (17 per cent) for disabled workers.

This is contrary to current Government guidance – and the union body says it is “the tip of the iceberg” of employers ignoring their health and safety responsibilities.

The findings come amid heavy speculation that the Prime Minister will today delay ending Covid restrictions in England, including the work from home guidance, in a bid to combat the sharp increase in Covid cases.

Breaching Government guidance
The TUC says the Government must send a “clear message” to employers not to breach the current guidance – which states that people should work from home if possible – to reduce community transmission and keep workers safe.

Today’s polling reveals that one in four workers (25%) are working from the office or other workplaces despite being able to work from home.

The union body says employers have a duty to make sure their staff are safe. Until such time Government guidance changes,workers should not be required to work from their office or workplace if they can do their job from home, and companies should make use of the furlough scheme if they cannot enable workers to work from home.

Health and safety concerns
The polling also reveals that many employers have still not taken the necessary action to ensure that workplaces are Covid-secure:

  • Nearly half of workers (46 percent) say their employer has not taken technical measures to improve airflow at their workplaces
  • Three in ten staff (29 per cent) said they were not consulted by their employer on a Covid-secure risk assessment
  • One in six staff surveyed (17 per cent) say they have not been given Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
  • One in ten (11 per cent) say that social distancing still isn’t enabled in their workplace

The TUC says that at present workers have little recourse if their employer forces them to come into the workplace when they could do their job from home.

The union body says that ministers should tell workers who are inappropriately told to come into workplaces to call the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – which should then trigger a spot check from the HSE.

If staff are not reasonably enabled to work from home, the TUC says, this may be evidence that the employer has ignored their responsibilities and is breaking health and safety law.

Employers who unreasonably require workers to come into the workplace when their job can be done from home should be fined.

Enforcement crisis
To date not one company in Britain has been prosecuted and fined for breaching Covid-19 safety rules – despite outbreaks at many workplaces. The TUC is calling on the Government to step up enforcement against companies who take risks with workers’ safety.

The TUC says the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities must clamp down much harder on bosses who put staff at risk – and must have the resources to do so.

The union body is calling for the Government to reverse cuts of the past decade to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which it says left Britain “under-prepared and vulnerable” to the pandemic.

The last ten years has seen real term cuts of 50 per cent to the HSE budget, on top of local authority budgets being slashed.

There has also been a dramatic decline in inspections. There were 27 per cent fewer HSE inspections carried out in the UK in 2019 than 2011, amounting to a fall of over 5,700 a year.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We all want to beat this virus once and for all. But some employers are still needlessly requiring workers to come into workplaces when they could work from home – and this is the tip of the iceberg of bosses ignoring their health and safety responsibilities.

“Employers should not be able to ignore Government safety guidance with impunity. It puts workers at risk and increases community transmission. The Government must send out a clear message to employers to play by the rules or face serious action.

“When the Government does move to unlock the economy, we need workers to be confident their workplaces are safe and Covid-secure. So, Ministers must fund enforcement bodies properly so they can recruit and train qualified workplace inspectors, inspect more workplaces, and prosecute companies who don’t keep their workers safe.

“If you are being forced to work in your office or other workplace when your job could be done from home – or if you feel unsafe in any type of workplace – please get in touch with your union. And if you’re not in a union, join one today.”

The TUC is calling on the Government to get a grip on Covid workplace safety and:

  • Tell workers to call the HSE if they are being forced into workplaces unnecessarily
  • Require the HSE to follow up all reports of workers being forced into workplaces with a spot check
  • Fine employers who force workers into workplaces unnecessarily
  • Clamp down much harder on rule-breaking bosses, including those who are still not meeting the legal requirement of conducting a risk assessment.
  • Require the HSE to designate Covid-19 a “serious” workplace risk rather than just a “significant” workplace risk, which has led to a foot-dragging approach to enforcement.
  • Make sure there is enforceable Covid-Secure guidance for every type of workplace once restrictions have ended, developed in consultation with unions and employers.