16 Yorkshire MPs call on Government to clarify 'key worker' status as region's employees continue to work

Workers across Yorkshire are being forced to go into offices, factories, and warehouses during the coronavirus lockdown despite them disagreeing over whether their roles are essential, a group of MPs has claimed.

The Yorkshire Post, the region’s MPs, and unions have been contacted en masse by concerned employees who fear they are putting their health, or that of vulnerable family members at risk, by going to work.

But many have been told it is not possible for them to work from home or that they will not be paid if they do not come in, despite Government assistance available to furlough workers during the crisis.

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Amid much public confusion, the Government has said employees can continue working in non-essential industries if social distancing can be safely practised.

Commuters wear masks as a precaution whilst travelling on a London Underground train. Photo: Tolga AKMEN / AFP

But calls have been made for Boris Johnson to clarify exactly what measures need to be put in place.

Some 16 Yorkshire MPs - led by Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel - have written to the Prime Minister demanding clarification on who counts as a key worker, as they said “organisations should not be free to define staff as ‘key workers’. Those definitions must be set out in full by the Government”.

And Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Layla Moran has demanded an anonymous whistleblowing hotline be set up for employees to report companies not adhering to the rules.

Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn has written to Capita, which has a base in Leeds, after receiving concerns from its staff.

One Capita worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “They have made zero efforts to enforce social distancing. They are still making advisors dial on unnecessary campaigns. They are working around the guidelines by saying they are customer service rolls, but they are solely sales.”

They added: “They are closing offices and asking staff to work from home, but they have nothing in place for the staff that make them the money. We are just forgotten about.”

A Capita spokesperson said their “top priority” was staff wellbeing but that: “Many of our employees work for clients in sectors including utility, telecommunications and financial services, who continue to need services in these challenging times.”

They said they have allowed as many staff members as possible to work from home and for those who cannot, adjustments had been made in the workplace.

While Barnsley East MP Stephanie Peacock had been in contact with the chief executive at clothing retailer Asos, as workers at their Barnsley warehouse were told to go in despite workers at the business’ Camden HQ being able to work from home.

Regional Organiser for GMB, Deanne Ferguson, said the union had been “inundated with calls from worried workers” at the Asos site.

The union said those working in the warehouse feel Government guidelines with regards to PPE and social distancing are being completely ignored.

One worker said: “It'll be like a domino effect, if one gets it, we'll all get it and people will lose their lives.

Another said: “They are playing roulette with people’s lives.”

A third added: “I’m currently in isolation as I live with someone who is high risk. However, because I have been told I am not sick myself I will not be entitled to sick pay. So I’m currently off work unpaid.”

Ms Peacock said: “I have written to the CEO expressing my concern and will do all I can to make sure workers across Barnsley East are able to do their jobs in safe conditions.

“We should treat workers in London and the North the same."

Ms Ferguson added: “It looks exactly like a hot bed of infection – and workers are very scared.

“Asos needs to put people before profits and make sure workers are the are distance apart and paid properly if they need to take time off.

Asos Chief Executive Nick Beighton said the work at the Barnsley warehouse could not be done at home, but said “strict social distancing protocols” had been issued including placing lines spaced two metres apart on floors and removing tables from the staff restaurant.

Breaks and shifts had been staggered and he said: “Alongside doing all we can to protect the health and employment of thousands of staff at our Barnsley warehouse, we are looking to offer our services to the NHS to assist with the logistical challenges of delivering essential products for doctors and nurses when they need it most.”

But the letter from Yorkshire MPs said: “We the undersigned, request that the Government clearly define who are and who are not key workers. We do not believe that those in the telecommunications industry, other than those who deal with emergency response, should be defined as key workers.

“We also ask the Government to raise serious questions with industry leaders about why they could not run operations and call centres remotely and why they had no systems in place to do so in the event of a national emergency.

“These organisations are some of the wealthiest in the United Kingdom. We have seen much smaller firms, creatively redesigning their systems to allow for home working.”

They also called for clearer guidance on social distancing measures and added: “We believe this to be in breach of the spirit of the national lockdown and a serious risk to public health during this crisis.”

It was signed by Mr Sobel, Naz Shah (Bradford West), Rachel Reeves (Leeds West), Ms Peacock, Ed Miliband (Doncaster North), Rachael Maskell (York Central), Holly Lynch (Halifax), Diana Johnson (Hull North), Emma Hardy (Hull West and Hessle), Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East), Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough), Tracy Brabin (Batley and Spen), Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central), Olivia Blake (Sheffield Hallam), Mr Benn, and Karl Turner (Hull East).

During Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday Boris Johnson said “every business is to follow what the Government has said, to obey the rules or to expect the consequences.

"That is the best way to look after not just their employees but their businesses as well."

But union leaders have called on the Government to go further and intervene to stop companies forcing those in non-essential services to go to work.

The TUC said there should be more specific guidance on what jobs fall into the essential services category, and employers must be told their staff should not be travelling to work if their job is non-essential.

Workers should also be reassured they will not face disciplinary action or dismissal if they stay at home, said the TUC.

General secretary Frances O'Grady said companies must not put their profits before people's lives, adding: "No-one should be sacked for following official instructions and staying home.

"To end any confusion, Government should provide specific instruction on what jobs fall into the essential services category.

"If companies continue to flout the rules, they shouldn't just be held accountable in the court of public opinion, the Government must intervene to make them close their doors."

Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves has also written to Business Secretary Alok Sharma, in her role as chair of the Business Select Committee, asking the Government for clearer guidance for workers.

She asked workers to contact the committee on Tuesday with their concerns and more than 600 messages were received from a wide range of sectors including office staff, furniture manufacturers, travel agents, estate agents, law firms, and TV engineers.

Ms Reeves said: “When workers are coming forward in their droves to say they are being forced to go to work or that their employer is simply not offering enough support to help them work safely, then it’s vital the Government comes forward with immediate clarification on which businesses are truly “essential” - and are expected remain open - and which should be sending their employees home.”

Mr Johnson said on Monday night that the public "must stay at home" unless they work in a key sector or industry.

This includes some shops such as grocers, pharmacies, pet shops, bicycle shops and hardware stores, among others.

But retailers can still trade online, and the Government is now under pressure to intervene to end the confusion about which businesses can continue to operate.

Many workers in the retail and construction sectors have said they feel they have little choice but to head to work, leading to images of overcrowded trains emerging on social media.