Leicester in lockdown: socialists speak out

Below are three comments from Socialist Alternative (ISA in England & Wales) members in Leicester on the recent announcements that they city will remain in lockdown.

Below are three comments from Socialist Alternative (ISA in England & Wales) members in Leicester on the recent announcements that they city will remain in lockdown.

Andrew Walton Nearly a fortnight ago, the government had concerns about a rise in COVID-19 cases in Leicester. We are only just now being told that businesses, which were due to open, have to remain closed, all non-essential travel must cease and people have to continue working from home. This is after 5 schools in Leicester had already been closed, and outbreaks were confirmed at two branches of Sainsburys in the city and at Samworth Brothers, one of the county’s biggest employers. Cases have also been discovered at five garment factories in the city. Workers had not been furloughed, and were forced to go to other factories in order to find work, after their place of work had closed.

The Tories are prioritising the economy over people’s lives. Shopping centres and pubs are reopening in an attempt to get the people spending, while millions are struggling to make ends meet, are facing unemployment or have lost wages, and risks spreading the virus further.

In Leicester, the government’s slowness to act and reluctance to impose restrictions, means that any lockdown will have to remain in place longer, and paradoxically, will cause more job losses, with many businesses already struggling to cope. Leicester is not alone in facing a spike of cases – 36 other areas of England have also had a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

Who decides?

Locally implemented lockdowns may be necessary in coming weeks, and aren’t by themselves a bad thing. When it comes to dealing with a pandemic of this nature, a degree of local flexibility can be useful. Many people will want to make sure that they are kept safe and will support the delay in reopening if that cannot be guaranteed.

However, decisions about the reopening or closing of businesses should be made democratically by committees of workers, trade unions and people from the community, to ensure they are based on science and health, rather than concerns over profit. Also, there needs to be accountability of the authorities both locally and nationally when looking at the reasons for why the virus is currently spiking in some places and not others.

To avoid having to resort to further lockdowns, there needs to be widespread testing and tracing. The government has failed to hit any of its targets on this, essentially abandoning attempts to have any meaningful approach to tracing the virus. Without this, it’s likely that there will be a chaotic approach across the country, with different local authorities reopening and closing businesses and workplaces at different times.

Police, tasked with enforcing the lockdown rules, have complained that they need certainty over what the public can and cannot do. The simple message of “stay at home, protect the NHS” was replaced with a meaningless slogan of “Stay Alert” and the 2m social distancing measure has been replaced with “1m plus”. Tories are not following scientific advice. They constantly claimed in daily briefings that we were moving from “Level 4” to “Level 3”, despite being warned by experts not to confuse the public, and to keep the message simple. But, it is not the policing of the public that is the issue. Where is the policing of the bosses who have forced workers into unsafe factories, no doubt contributing to the spread of the virus? Workers should organise in these workplaces: if it’s not safe, shut it down!

Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings and Leicester’s own Mayor Peter Soulsby were caught breaching lockdown rules. There has been no effective opposition from Labour. Keir Starmer, rather than criticising the government over some of the worst death rates in the world for COVID-19, praised Boris Johnson for his handling of the crisis, and demanded that the economy be opened up faster!

Despite tokenistic Tory clapping for the NHS – the NHS is still facing privatisation, and locally NHS services are being cut, with the closure of Leicester General Hospital on the cards, unless a mass campaign can force a U-turn by this weak and incompetent government.

We demand:

  • No return to schools until it is safe to do so, and a reliable method of tracking and testing cases is in place.
  • Nationalise failing companies under democratic control.
  • Trade unions and workers should be central in making decisions about safety.
  • No cuts to our NHS – Leicester Socialist Alternative is part of a broad campaign to save Leicester General Hospital.
  • No-one should be forced to work – full wages should be paid to workers, who through no fault of their own, are furloughed, or are shielding vulnerable relatives.

We need to build the socialist alternative, locally and internationally. It is obvious that capitalism cannot cope with crises, and is putting profit before our health.

“Stuck between a pandemic and no future” – comment from a factory worker

My partner and I are both from Leicester and are from a BAME background. On the one hand, the greatest concern for us has been our safety, with the rising infections within our city and the increased risk unique to our backgrounds. On the other hand, we’re just as concerned about the precarious situations regarding our jobs. My employer refused to shut their non-essential business during the peak of the UK pandemic purely for his gain. My partner’s employment agency, only a few days ago, during the recent local spike of infections, started threatening key workers on zero-hours contracts that their exploitative contracts meant they could be sent on assignments to work within a 3-hour travel time. Refuse their unreasonable demands, to be sent out to the very hotspots for viral transmission, industrial food processing plants, and this could be met with termination of your employment. So much for their human right to ‘just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.’

Add to this an aloof local Mayor, whose brazen breaking of lockdown restrictions goes unpunished whilst ordinary workers face vindictive disciplinary measures for speaking out about unsafe workplaces. Care workers, the very people we cheered and clapped for a few weeks ago, are now being threatened en masse with either accepting diminished conditions or the sack. Or, how about other local bosses? How have they supported their workforces during this most uncertain period? By jumping to make redundancies, unwilling to even contribute a fraction of employees salaries in the coming months with furlough support, yet somehow able to pay themselves bloated salaries to underperform.

Leicester, a city with a fantastic football club but also in the unenviable premier league of deprivation, 21st nationally. A city where 1 in 6 residents live in areas of high health deprivation. A city where ordinary people have had to fight to save a children’s heart unit and are fighting to save their hospital. How has Leicester’s Labour majority council fought back against Tory austerity and cuts to services that protect the most vulnerable in society? By shrinking away from the best socialist traditions of the labour movement and giving in to Tory policy without even a fight to stop our city sliding deeper into deprivation since 2010.

We’re now into a second lockdown, a lockdown initially resisted by our Mayor, but given that nearly 40% of Leicester is made up from people of the BAME community and the poor health outcomes within it, a lockdown that was overdue.

Leicester has lost the traditional industries of shoe making and textiles that brought the waves of migration needed to satisfy the labour needs of industrial booms, support the NHS and build the city itself.

There will be no Green New Deal to kick start the economy or even a slither of the sums used to prop up the banking system during the last crash to support our city and our chances of finding work. Over and over again we’ve witnessed how callous bosses unflinchingly pull the levers of exploitation in the pursuit of economic advantage. There is only one proven method to fight back against exploitation and impoverishing conditions: united struggle. We need to build on the recent Black Lives Matter and past Glenfield children’s heart unit campaigns to unite our city against hate and begin the fight for our futures.

Sweatshops and anti-union bosses: The real roots of Leicester’s coronavirus outbreak Michael Barker

Divide and rule is a tried-and-tested tactic that is employed by the billionaire-class and their political representatives, in order to deflect attention away from their own callousness. This is why right from the start of this crisis the Tories have sought to blame us for the spread of the pandemic; in reality, it is the government’s gross incompetence that has allowed Covid-19 to rip through our communities and care homes.

Yes, the Tories issued ‘guidance’ for how to stop the spread of the virus, but they have been totally negligent in ensuring it was ever implemented. Particularly in low waged non-unionised workplaces, this has enabled unscrupulous bosses to put profits before safety.

Based in Beaumont Leys, Leicester, Samworth Brothers is a well-known anti-union company that runs one the UK’s largest sandwich production operations, and has just witnessed an outbreak of the coronavirus amongst its staff. That Samworth’s food factories would contribute to the pandemics spread was, however, entirely predictable; both before and during this pandemic, this is an employer that has refused to work with trade unions to help ensure their factories were run safely.

As one Leicester-based whistle-blower working for Samworth Brothers explained to the Baker’s Union at the start of April, “all I think about after waking up are the dangerous conditions we have to face at work.”

In addition to failing to take the necessary measures to ensure that safe social distancing practices were applied to workplaces, the billionaire owners of Samworth Brothers also put all their staff at risk when they refused to pay agency workers if they needed to self-isolate. This creates a culture of presenteeism, where workers are compelled to attend, even if ill, because of the threat of a massive loss of pay.

But Samworth Brothers were merely acting like many irresponsible corporations who choose to elevate the growth of shareholder profits over the needs of key workers. Greencore is another case in point. Despite recognising a trade union at some of their Northampton production sites, when one of their employees tested positive at the start of May the site managers were still refusing to share their Covid-19 risk assessments with the local union reps. (For more on this see “Millionaire bosses at Greencore endanger us all with their pandemic profiteering.”)

Another anti-union company that indirectly pays the (very low) wages thousands of workers in Leicester is the trendy online fashion retailer Boohoo, which appears to be doing very well out of this crisis. Last month the Financial Times reported: “Seemingly unaffected by the pandemic, the fast-fashion retailer…reported a 45 per cent increase in sales in the three months to May, to £368m.” Profits it seems are booming for their billionaire executives, and last week Boohoo “unveiled a plan to pay bonuses of up to £100m to its two co-founders and £50m to other executives”.

Just days after this distasteful display of pandemic profiteering played out in the media, a damming investigative report undertaken by “Labour Behind the Label” demonstrated how Boohoo’s profits were intimately entwined to the deep exploitation and untimely deaths of the people of Leicester.

Boohoo’s trade, it turns out, is built upon the back of the existence of a huge illegal sweatshop industry located in many of Leicester’s poorest suburbs. A dark industry which Boohoo relies upon to provide most of their products – many of whose factories also remained open for business during the peak of the pandemic.

As the investigative report makes clear these exploitative working practices are “not only the result of some unscrupulous suppliers but also an inevitable outcome of the current fast fashion business model and the lack of regulation of pricing and purchasing practices. Indeed, the current abuses could in fact have been foreseen.”

That the government has done nothing to address ongoing reports of extreme exploitation in Leicester’s garment industry shows what we already know: that the Tories political priorities have nothing to do with improving the living conditions of ordinary people. In providing the horrific details of the bullying that is going on inside many of Boohoo’s sweatshops, the report explains:

“One worker in a factory employing about 100 workers stated that he told his employer he felt unwell but was told he had to come into work. After working that day, he got tested and was found positive over the weekend. He informed his manager who told him that he should not inform any other workers of his result and not to send in a sick note. He has later found out that there were four other workers all sick with COVID-19 in similar positions – one however is still working because he cannot afford to take time off. When the worker applied for statutory sick pay his manager informed him that he was not going to get any sick pay and that he should just work through it or he would be sacked. According to the worker, the manager even told him that he himself has been tested positive but has continued to work every day and ‘not died’. The workers also said that there are no social distancing rules or PPE / sanitizers provided.”

Tragically this was no anomaly, and in “another relatively large factory employing around 100 staff, supplying for Boohoo, there have been 8 cases which led to the factory being closed. However, the factory has since reopened, and workers are being told to come into work or face dismissal.”

Such intimidation is not unique to Boohoo’s numerous suppliers – as we have seen with Samworth Brothers, key workers are not immune from attacks. This is well demonstrated by the ongoing attacks upon care home workers in Leicestershire who are currently battling against a massive cut on their pay and conditions, all in the name of securing greater profits for the bosses.

Making these matters worse, while turning an eye to the oppressive actions of bosses during this pandemic, the Tories have been consistent in their attempts to blame the spread of the coronavirus on the failure of ordinary people to follow their so-called guidelines. But if anyone is to blame for the death of so-many people in Britain, it is the government and their friends in the billionaire-class, many of whose profits have soared to new highs at the same time as the pandemic claims our lives.

Leicester has now been placed under lockdown measures again, and exploitation continues apace, and the one thing we can be certain of in the coming weeks is that thousands of workers will be expected to turn-up at unsafe factories to continue producing more profits for Boohoo. And unless we do anything to stop this exploitation, it will be the people of Leicester who will be forced to pay with our lives.

That is why local Labour politicians who completely dominate the city must take an immediate lead in implementing the actions that are proposed in “Labour Behind the Label’s” Boohoo report. The first urgent demand noting that:

“All Boohoo sales and production must be suspended by the local authorities right away pending investigation into safety measures and reports of fraud at its supplier factories. All workers affected – regardless of employment status should receive full pay while work is suspended.”

The report makes many other useful demands (which can be read online here), but first and foremost, it is clear that Boohoo and their suppliers must immediately recognise the right of their employees to negotiate collectively as members of trade unions to defend and expend their working rights. Without having access to such basic rights, it is unlikely that the situation in Leicester’s workplaces will improve anytime soon.

For too long Leicester’s Labour politicians have stood on the side-lines allowing attacks upon ordinary workers to continue. This must end. Now such politicians must be forced to join trade unions and socialists in leading a coordinated response to this pandemic and position themselves at the front of a determined fight-back against the Tory death-cult that continues to sacrifice our lives on their altar of profits.

And finally, we must be clear what is to blame for this ongoing crisis, it is the capitalist system itself. The Tories are but its latest servants, with New Labour doing capitalism’s bidding before.

The future remains uncertain, but one thing is sure, there will be no going back to the old normal. The new normal, that we must now collectively fight for, must be a socialist future where the needs of ordinary people come before the needs of profiteering. A future where ordinary workers take democratic control their own lives, and create a world in which bullying billionaire bosses remain as a fading prehistoric relic of a distant more inhumane past.

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