The outbreak of COVID in the unsafe DVLA offices in Swansea has resulted in over 500 infections and 1 confirmed death so far. This is the worst workplace outbreak in the UK since the start of the pandemic.
This is a scandal. The fact that this is happening in a state-run department only further underlines how hypocritical and rotten this Tory government is.
Beginning today, PCS DVLA branch is issuing ballots to its members for strike action. We must now campaign for a mass turnout and a Yes vote, in order to secure safety for workers at the DVLA.
Still not safe
Since we last reported on this issue, PCS has held several mass meetings for members at the DVLA. Hundreds have listened to Mark Serwotka (PCS general secretary), Fran Heathcote (the union president), and Sarah Evans (PCS DVLA branch chair) speak about the question of health and safety.
The union’s leaders have updated members on the negotiations that have been taking place, explaining that management is not prepared to budge. The bosses have had a tin ear, refusing to respond to the outrage in the media or from workers.
The two-metre social distancing rules are still not adhered to – neither on the main site, nor in the contact centre. Desks are often just over a metre apart. There is still no major reduction of staff numbers working on site.
COVID testing in the contact centre, where the major outbreak happened, has been reduced from two per week to one. And even then, the tests used have an estimated reliability of less than 60%.
One anonymous worker explained the situation in a Wales Online article:
“We are currently 100 plus staff per floor, and there are 16 floors on my block. So you can do the maths. And that’s without the other two large blocks on site, and the so-called other six we apparently have in Llansamlet.
“Sharing kitchens with other zones; sharing one set of toilets per floor; hot-desking as there aren’t enough seats...I could go on and on.”
This is what is deemed ‘COVID-safe’, according to senior management.
Of course, despite the safety claims, DVLA CEO Julie Lennard has only attended work in person six times since September 2020. And HR director Louise Ellman has not been in the office since October.
These same managers are claiming that working from home cannot be guaranteed due to ‘IT compatibility issues’ and ‘data protection’. Of course, neither of these factors have prevented any of the senior managers from staying at home.
The truth is, as Mark Serwotka said in one of the mass meetings, that DVLA staff are unable to work from home either because of a genuine lack of investment in IT services, or because of a lack of trust amongst the bosses towards the workers.
Neither of these questions is an acceptable excuse in the middle of a global pandemic. Government departments such as HMRC, DVSA, and DWP have all adapted to work from home.
Organisation and action
As a result, PCS DVLA branch is now moving to ballot its members for industrial action. Ballot papers are going out by post today, Thursday 18 February.
A straw poll held at one of the recent mass meetings – attended by 500 members – saw 90% support for strike action. This must now be translated into a strong turnout in the actual ballot.
PCS is demanding a ‘significant reduction’ of the number of staff on site. Mark Serwotka stated that:
"It is a scandal that DVLA have insisted over 2,000 staff members come into work every day, despite having the biggest outbreak of COVID in an office workplace within the UK.
"DVLA senior management, led by CEO Julie Lennard, have shown a cruel indifference to safety of their staff by repeatedly attacking the union and rubbishing testimony where workers have expressed their real fear at going into work.
"Balloting our members for strike action shows the anger workers feel at their treatment, and PCS will also support them in any individual Section 44 claims they make to keep themselves safe."
Already, in the last few months, large numbers of workers have joined the union. There are teams where over 90% of workers are now union members.
There is massive support for strike action on the ground. A strong turnout and a big Yes vote will leave management with no leg to stand on. Only through organisation and collective action can we guarantee safety for all DVLA workers.