Royal Mail has been accused of having “disregarded the health and wellbeing of staff ” and putting their lives at risk by allegedly failing to properly protect workers during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Key workers, employed at Glasgow’s Springburn depot last year, have revealed they felt unsafe at work early in the pandemic to the point where they were forced to leave their jobs.
The same Royal Mail office saw a major Covid-19 outbreak in December with 38 cases confirmed. But now workers allege that longstanding issues in ensuring protective measures were put in place were evident from the start of the pandemic.
The Communication Workers Union Scotland said that improved procedures had been put in place following a health and safety inspection by Glasgow City Council prompted by the December outbreak.
The STUC said the situation was far from isolated and claimed unions were “working round the clock” to keep support workers. Dave Moxham, deputy secretary, said current Scottish Government messaging was confusing, allowing some employers to “play fast and loose with the guidance”.
In one case, branded “disgraceful” by the CWU Scotland, a women was repeatedly refused a protective screen at her reception desk – first requested in April 2020.
The anxiety caused by her bosses’ continued refusal to put safety measures in place led to her being signed off with stress, during which she sought counselling. She eventually left the company in October last year.
In another case an agency worker, employed at the sorting depot last August, left after only a handful of shifts, because she felt unsafe. She claims the use of gloves and masks provided was not enforced, and social distancing not always adhered to.
Royal Mail concerns
SNP MP for Glasgow North East, Anne McLaughlin has been supporting both workers through her constituency work. She is aware of other workers from the mail depot who had similar concerns but they are not willing to speak out publicly due to fear of recriminations.
The first woman, Tracey, said her difficulties first started when she returned to work after recovering from what she believes was Covid-19. At the time testing was not widely available.
Anxious about going back to her workplace at the height of the first lockdown in early April last year, she bought a “sneeze screen” with her own money which she had delivered to the depot. She hoped it could be fitted to the front of her reception desk to protect her.
But after it arrived Tracey says she received “a stern voicemail” from her manager who told her that she did not need it. Another instructed her to return it, promising one could be made from Perspex instead, but this decision was reversed as soon as she went back to work.
Though floor tape was used to mark two metres, people often forgot to maintain social distance, she claims. “Humans are humans and even after a colleague put bollards up people still walked straight through them,” she says. “I asked for a screen again and again. I had done my research and I tried to explain but it fell on deaf ears.
“I was constantly on high alert. One time a delivery driver came in and had a sneezing fit – I had to dive for cover behind my desk.”
Her attempts to escalate concerns were repeatedly batted back – and eventually one staff member provided a homemade visor, rare at the time, which cut into her head but which she wore until it broke.
Eventually she sought advice from her MP but when bosses discovered she’d taken this step she claims there was shouting, recriminations and threats about “the consequences” her “whistleblowing” actions may have.
“The way I was spoken to made me feel so small. Another manager ridiculed and intimidated me for having worn the face visor. I really was at rock bottom, to the point I had to seek counselling.”
In the end she phoned her doctor in tears and was signed off due to stress. She went through a grievance process, overseen by management, which she says was “a farce” and not upheld.
“In October I felt I had no option but to leave after that,” she said. “I was in a job that I really enjoyed and I feel I have been thrown to the wolves. Nobody should have to put up with what I went through at work.”
Her departure came two months after Cat Robertson – a make-up artist who has not been allowed to work due to the restrictions – took on shifts sorting mail at the depot through an agency. She claims she was “taken aback” to find safety measures were not more stringent.
She said: “Certainly no-one was forcing you to wear a mask. We were told to try and stay two metres apart – and that was possible when you were at your station but we had to walk past each other to get where we were going all the time.
Royal Mail says face coverings are mandatory and that workers have had many reminders about this, as well as the need for social distancing.
But Robertson added: “It didn’t feel safe and I didn’t want to bring Covid back into the house so I decided not to take on any more shifts and we’ve been relying on my husband’s income.”
Anne McLaughlin, whose constituency takes in the Springburn depot, wrote twice to the Royal Mail last summer to raise the concerns of workers, including the woman working at reception. The company did not reply to her second letter. She says she is not yet reassured it has learned the lessons of last year.
“The people of Glasgow have gone above and beyond to protect each other during this pandemic but despite repeated requests from the workers and myself Royal Mail have simply disregarded the health and wellbeing of their staff and put their lives at risk,” she said.
“You have to ask the question would that have been the case if we, the public, still owned Royal Mail. I was worried sick when I heard about the outbreak at St Rollox depot [in December] – 38 people in a workforce of 1000 meant they had an alarming 24 times the rate of Glasgow as a whole at that time.
“Unfortunately, I was not surprised given the reports I have had on the management’s attitude to social distancing and the provision of screens.
“I hope that this episode has encouraged the adoption of best practice throughout the company and will help to keep their staff, who have, after all, kept this country running, safe.
“But frankly, I don’t feel completely satisfied that they have taken this seriously. There should be regular inspections.”
Craig Anderson, deputy branch secretary of Communication Workers Union Scotland, which was also supporting the woman working at reception, said: “It’s a disgrace that Tracey’s fears and concerns were repeatedly ignored.
Workers at the Royal Mail sorting depot in Alexandria on a previous campaign.
“It’s completely unacceptable that a key worker was not given the protection at work to carry out her job. Royal Mail must take responsibility for this member’s long term mental health being affected by their decision not to provide a safe workplace and repeatedly disregarding their duty of care to an employee.
“I believe that things have changed, though questions remain whether or not they have in regard to that particularly desk. I would hope that that situation wouldn’t arise now. But’s not too late for the company to make amends for what has happened in this case.”
He said the union warned the Scottish Government in November about the potential impact that hiring agency workers pre-Christmas may have.
But it was only after the outbreak at the Glasgow Royal Mail depot that health and safety inspections were carried out. He called for spot-checks to continue across workplaces where key workers were unable to work from home, to ensure they were being protected.
Dave Moxham, deputy general secretary of the STUC, said that while the majority of employers were doing the right thing, the situation described at Royal Mail was not an isolated one.
“The STUC and unions have received many complaints from workers whose employers have failed to provide adequate protections or who have not properly implemented Covid health and safety protocols,” he added.
“Union health and safety reps have been working around the clock to support workers with concerns but, in contrast with the first lock-down, Scottish Government messaging on essential and non-essential work has been more confusing allowing some employers to play fast and loose with the guidance.”
A Royal Mail Spokesperson said: “Royal Mail takes its responsibility for its employees’ health and safety extremely seriously.
“Throughout the COVID pandemic we have been fully guided by our health & safety department who have made recommendations reflecting Government and Health Board guidance regarding alterations to our workplace to mitigate potential risks and to ensure social distancing can be fully maintained.
“We put in place appropriate preventative measures based on rigorous and thorough risk assessments. Our buildings are COVID secure meeting all relevant guidelines. Face coverings are a mandatory requirement inside all Royal Mail buildings.”
“Many communications” had been issueed to staff about social distancing, face coverings and handwashing, the spokesperson added.
They added: “The requirement for Personal Protective Equipment, including protective perspex screens have been continually reviewed following changes in government and health and safety guidance.”