Lesley Riddoch: Back-breaking work has returned to Britain

The staff at your favourite cafe might be smiling through gritted teeth after an agonising shift, writes Lesley Riddoch.
Research suggests workers who stand on the job are twice as likely to have heart disease than workers who sitResearch suggests workers who stand on the job are twice as likely to have heart disease than workers who sit
Research suggests workers who stand on the job are twice as likely to have heart disease than workers who sit

So budget airlines have democratised the skies – really?

As apologists come to the defence of flight-cutting, passenger-dumping Ryanair, it’s time a different connection was made between cut-price service providers and democracy.

Just before Ryanair’s mass cancellations, the company lost a ruling in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) forcing it to measure pilots’ flying hours in accordance with EU flight regulations for the first time. According to Irish pilots union IALPA, Ryan-air knew this loophole would soon be closed and should have prepared for it.

Read More
Scotland '˜fairest in the UK' but still has £8k gender pay gap
Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Instead the company played hardball with staff, so that 700 pilots left Ryanair in the past year and remaining staff are talking about industrial action and joining unions.

As a weekend paper put it: “They sense that, for the first time in decades, their position is stronger than that of their employer”.

Doubtless that’s why Michael O’Leary has asked pilots to accept an “offer” of £12k to forfeit holidays, return to work and fly stranded passengers home. It seems the wily Ryanair boss is trying to turn the tables and make “greedy” pilots look responsible for leaving passengers stranded all over Europe.

But it would behove the public to stand back from the pilot and union-bashing that will inevitably ensue and consider instead how the “cheap as chips” cost-cutting ethos of companies such as Ryanair has undermined society and set the bar ever lower for other employers.

Last weekend I was travelling back from Stansted when Ryanair’s cancellations were announced. It was bad news for passengers and just as bad for the staff dealing with it. One information desk staff member working at 10pm on Friday was back on shift the following morning, looking dazed and almost punch-drunk as he tried to deal with a queue of passengers getting angrier by the minute.

In the departure area, I noticed one of the young checkout staff shifting uneasily from leg to leg as she stood by her till in Duty Free. I asked if she had a seat – she said she had been standing for 19 hours as a result of a colleague not appearing for their shift.

The only relief from standing in one fixed spot was getting onto the shop floor to walk for a couple of hours around the perfume and make-up counters. At no time could this 20-something sit and, as a result, she had a sore back most of the time. Staff were standing in other shops and cafes around the departure area – a few I spoke to stood regularly for 10-12 hours at a time.

That’s bad. But what happened when I inquired about the legal position of workers was possibly worse.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A media officer at the Health and Safety Executive told me there was no relevant law governing standing in the workplace – but there is. Regulation 11 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 states that, where it’s possible to sit, a seat should be provided. The HSE spokesman also said his organisation had no responsibility for monitoring such workplace issues – but it does. According to the shop workers’ union USDAW, the HSE is charged with giving support and advice to local authorities and employers regarding the 1992 regulations and is directly responsible for enforcing them in factories, hospitals, schools and universities. Local authorities enforce the regulations in shops, high streets and small businesses.

So I called Essex County Council, whose very pleasant press officer said he was sure the council had no part to play in regulating workers’ conditions at Stansted. “I wouldn’t even know which council department to ask,” he said.

USDAW’s spokesman said he was “utterly astonished” that these organisations were so ignorant of their statutory roles.

Yet research published last month in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests workers who primarily stand on the job are twice as likely to have heart disease than workers who mainly sit.

The study, by researchers who followed 7,300 heart disease-free Canadian workers for 12 years, found that sitting can be a “silent killer” but standing for more than five hours at a time was likely to lead to lower back pain, varicose veins and other circulatory problems, as blood is not pumped properly around the body.

This should be a scandal.

Across Britain, service workers are forced to stand and smile through gritted teeth every day, in pain and at the expense of their health.

But unions find it hard to win personal injury claims because staff employed on short-term or zero hours contracts are less likely to be union members or to ask for a chair, for fear of being sacked.

World Duty Free, which owns the Duty Free shop at Stansted and most BAA airports, didn’t answer my calls.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So welcome to modern Britain, where full employment means many must accept back-
breaking jobs in which pay is low, employment contracts are tenuous, prospects are poor and conditions are bad.

That’s why union membership and recognition matter – note well Anas Sarwar – and why progressives should rejoice that unions have started flexing their collective muscles again.

The GMB, for example, was behind the legal action that prompted Transport for London (TfL) to end Uber’s licence to practise in London last week.

The union argued drivers for the ride-hailing app firm should earn a London living wage without having to work round-the-clock.

But TfL went further and decided the company wasn’t “fit and proper” to hold a licence. Uber’s shutdown will cause pain for 40,000 drivers and 3.5 million registered London users. But the upheaval will be worthwhile if it brings some stability and fairness into one of Britain’s most precarious workplaces.

Meanwhile north of the Border, USDAW has become the fourth union to back left-winger and former GMB official Richard Leonard in his battle with Sarwar, guaranteeing that the Scottish Labour leadership contest will be much more than a personality contest.

Of course, Brexit allows the Tories to escape the ECJ’s progressive jurisdiction and dump Britain’s remaining workers’ rights, but it’s now clear the unions will not give up without a fight.

And while some papers and politicians will bemoan such a move, a concerted challenge by the labour movement is long overdue – especially if it helps restore dignity and decent working conditions in hundreds of thousands of low-paid jobs.