Multinational retail giant IKEA has launched another attack on COVID sick pay. While everyone who can get vaccinated should do so, punitive attacks on low-paid workers are not a public health measure. The SSP calls for full average wages for every sick and self-isolating worker.
By Ken Ferguson, Scottish Socialist Voice editor
The multinational, super-profitable IKEA is the latest in a growing line of companies who are punishing workers with cuts to their sick pay whilst self-isolating from COVID-19.
They have just announced any IKEA worker who has not been fully vaccinated will be refused sick pay equivalent to their wages, and instead be dumped on Statutory Sick Pay of £96 a week.
Let us be clear from the outset: socialists and trade unionists should advocate full uptake of COVID vaccinations, as part of a package of measures to maximise protection of workers, their families, and communities from this killer virus. Especially now as the Omicron variant has infected at least one in 20 of the population.
But vaccination on its own won’t defeat the virus nor prevent the NHS – already at breaking point after decades of cuts to staffing and investment – from being overrun.
As the SSP has persistently argued, mass vaccination needs to be accompanied by systematic test, trace, and isolate programmes – under local NHS control, rather than that of private profiteers who happen to be pals of the Tory government – alongside financial support for those workers obliged to self-isolate to help protect the health of themselves and others.
That means full average wages for all sick or self-isolating workers, along with Statutory Sick Pay not of £96 but £350 a week, as demanded by the TUC and STUC.
Otherwise, COVID-infected workers will drag themselves into work and spread the virus out of sheer financial hardship, or simply hide the fact they have tested positive for the same reason.
The question then arises: what are the health benefits of IKEA or other companies slashing the incomes of workers forced to self-isolate who have not been vaccinated?
Many IKEA workers fall within the 18-29-years-old cohort where 30% remain unvaccinated for a variety of reasons, some less excusable than others: from fear as they are pregnant or trying for a baby, because this was the last group to be offered vaccinations, or because governments have not done a good enough job of building trust and retaining confidence.
Are these same people any more likely to rush out and get themselves vaccinated just because IKEA threaten them with a huge cut to their incomes from £10.10-an-hour to £96.35-a-week? Is financial punishment a way to persuade people of the science? Or are they not just as likely to hide their infection to avoid the financial hardship IKEA’s cost-cutting policy will impose, thereby risking the health of other workers and the public?
This is not a health measure. It’s a short-sighted cost-cutting exercise.
Nor should we forget that this very issue has a dirty, disgraceful history in the very same multinational. During the early months of COVID-19, in May 2020, IKEA announced the very same slashing of wages for any of the entire 13,000-strong workforce in the UK and Ireland who were forced off work due to COVID sickness or self-isolation.
They announced that from 1st June 2020 onwards, wages would be withdrawn and workers forced to survive on £95-a-week Statutory Sick Pay. When the elected union convener in their Glasgow store, Richie Venton, protested against this – arguing it would drive many infected workers into work out of sheer financial hardship, risking the health and lives of 500 fellow workers in his workplace alone, demanding full average wages instead – he was victimised, sacked from his job and has since been blacklisted.
Then, as now, the only motivation behind this punitive wage cut had nothing to do with workers’ health and everything to do with company wealth.
And it took the high profile, multi-union Reinstate Richie Venton campaign – with protest demos outside IKEA in Scotland, England, and Ireland; petitions; debates in both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments; and massive media coverage – to force IKEA into a massive U-turn, reinstating full pay for any worker off sick or self-isolating from COVID-19.
That climb-down was forced upon IKEA from 1st September 2020, giving about 13,000 workers the comfort of knowing they would get their usual contract hours wages if the pandemic forced them to stay off work to recover and protect others. Now IKEA bosses are using the cover of popular support for vaccinations to remove that safety net from some of their staff.
Instead of using the escalating Omicron version of COVID-19 as cover for cutting sick pay, companies need to be confronted by immediate demands from the trade union movement for full access to every worker, to allow fellow workers to explain and persuade them of the advantages of vaccination. And to conduct full health and safety audits of every workplace, with the aid of the army of trained union Health and Safety reps and shop stewards, with the powers to enforce safety measures.
The unions need to turn their excellent policies on sick pay into meaningful action, putting relentless pressure on employers to pay full average wages to any worker sick or self-isolating (from COVID-19 or any other sicknesses) and on the government to urgently introduce at least the average Statutory Sick Pay across Europe, instead of being the worst.
The trade union movement needs to step up the fight for workers’ health, not profiteers’ wealth.