Frontline workers in Derry supermarkets are not being adequately protected by their employers during the coronavirus pandemic, trade unionists have argued.
Stockpiles of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were said to be making its way to frontline healthcare workers but those in retail appear to be the ‘forgotten frontline’.
The Derry News has spoken to workers in different stores who have had to bring their own hand sanitisers or other protective equipment to work.
PPE shortages are understood to be widespread across the health service and also include GP practices.
The government has made clear that it is making efforts to deliver emergency supplies to hospitals.
However, retail workers who are serving thousands of customers every day in a pressurised environment as a consequence of panic-buying have been somewhat overlooked.
They are on the frontline too, trade unionists say, and face daily abuse from angry customers upset over food shortages.
The Derry News contacted the major supermarkets based in the city to ask what ‘specific measures’ they have put in place to protect staff.
In response, Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, which represents all the major supermarkets except for Tesco, said workers have been briefed on ‘strict hand washing’.
“Retailers are continuing to adhere to high standards of hygiene, and all employees are fully briefed with measures including strict hand washing policies. This remains the best way of protecting staff and customers,” he explained.
When asked to expand on ‘specific measures’ being implemented, a spokesperson for the consortium said that some have drawn up ‘rotas to allow employees to wash their hands at regular intervals’.
Meanwhile, Tesco gave assurances that the safety of its customers, colleagues and suppliers is its ‘number one priority’.
Strict health and safety processes are said to be in place in its stores and its supply chain and the retail giant is directing all colleagues and suppliers to follow public health authority guidance on how to keep themselves, fellow colleagues and customers safe.
Again, it could not say whether hand sanitisers, gloves, masks or other protective equipment would be provided to ensure staff are adequately protected.
Derry Trades Union Council (DTUC) Chairperson Niall McCarroll has called on all supermarket owners and management to provide workers with ‘adequate and fit for purpose’ PPE.
He said COVID-19 will bring many challenges and changes to how we go about our daily working lives.
“Some workers will be able to remain at home and shelter against the fast approaching virus.
Significant numbers won’t have the luxury of remaining at home.
“Frontline workers is the term used to describe those of us who must face COVID-19, keeping keep vital services operating, basically keeping people alive.
“One group of frontline workers who are particularly at risk and largely forgotten are supermarket workers.
“These workers need protected and above all else they need valued and respected by their employers.
“Over recent years supermarket workers have suffered with their terms and conditions of employment being attacked and devalued. With company sick pay being hit hard through cuts from the bosses.”
DTUC has therefore called on the Retail Consortium to reverse all cuts to workers terms and conditions, by taking control and showing leadership at this time.
Mr McCarroll said: “DTUC are calling for full sick pay to be paid to all supermarket workers who are self-isolating or caring for someone at risk. Full sick pay to be paid to all staff regardless of length of service.
“For those workers who would be considered to be vulnerable to Coronavirus, those over 60, any worker with underlying health conditions and pregnant workers should be allowed to self-isolate and work from home if they wish.
“These measures would be seen as in the public interest and widely supported.
Frontline workers must come before profit.”
He continued: “All supermarket workers must also have access to adequate and fit for purpose Personal Protective Equipment. Risk assessments, and widespread testing of all workers within this sector must be seen as a priority.
“DTUC ask all members of the public to back the call for supermarket workers to be valued and protected.
“Practice social distancing when in store and in the absence of respect from the bosses, show respect to these workers, without them things would be significantly more difficult.”
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