QMUL management puts profit before staff safety in reopening campus

Last Wednesday Queen Mary University of London announced the reopening of some parts of the campus – most notably the library – after its closure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

QMUCU, the other campus unions and QMSU continue to be sidelined in the process of opening up the university. Consistent with the way they have implemented wholesale changes affecting the staff and student body during the pandemic, QMUL’s Senior Management Team have not consulted with us meaningfully on this vital issue. QMUCU will support members concerned about any directives they recieve to return to campus, as the recent messages from the Principal and e-Bulletin have been inadequate and unsettling. No member of staff can be forced back into unsafe working conditions, nor their well-being compromised by the ‘state of exception’ granted to management by COVID-19.

We have already noted that staff have been massively affected by the shift to online work, sometimes working in inadequate conditions at unsuitable workstations. Changes to childcare arrangements have seen social reproductive responsibilities increase exponentially, especially for women, yet the number of days of unused annual leave permitted to be rolled over have become harder to obtain for those deemed non key workers. Furthermore, staff have been offered a botched Voluntary Severance Scheme (VSS), something that appears dead and buried with the exit of our interim Head of Human Resources. 

The return to campus is but the latest example of QMUL SMT doing things on the hoof without proper consultation with the campus unions, using dictats which have little concern for staff. At the heart of this move is their desire to square the circle of the contradiction between managing the safety of QMUL staff and students and the promise of a high quality university experience that can be claimed to be worth up to £24K a year for overseas postgraduate students.

QMUL is not alone in having oversold its offerings come September, but it is the attempt to meet promises to prospective students that is driving the accelerating, unsafe re-opening of QMUL campuses, particularly the Mile End campus lying in the heart of a community with a high risk of mortality. As such, QMUCU has developed its own checklist in response to the five points suggested by QMUL, which we advise members to follow: 

5 steps if you are asked to return to campus

1) Check the local risk assessment for your location of work. 

The employer must produce this for every area of the university – don’t take no for an answer when you ask your manager to see it. See our website with guidance about this. Report any issues/problems to QMUCU.

2) Organise/attend a meeting of colleagues to discuss safety concerns. 

Your colleagues are often facing similar challenges and asking themselves similar questions. They can be a vital source of support and solidarity when responding to management requests. Contact a UCU rep in your department for help organising a meeting.

3) Fill in your individual health assessment questionnaire and discuss it with your line manager. 

It is your line manager’s responsibility to assess the risk of your return to campus, but you can help make this as accurate as possible by filling out the individual health assessment questionnaire provided by QMUL. This is particularly important for those in at risk groups, but it applies to everyone. When you return the form, ensure your data is held securely, not in your manager’s email inbox. Make sure you include all issues in the assessment that could affect you, including workload/stress. 

4) Ask for an Equality Impact Assessment of any significant change in working practices as a result of COVID-19. 

The changes introduced to manage COVID-19 can affect particular groups of staff with protected characteristics in unfair and discriminatory ways. The employer must assess the equalities impact of any changes to ensure this does not happen. You can ask for this to be done yourself, or you can approach your local EDI committee. If you need union support with making this request, contact your local union rep or the branch committee.

5) Know your rights, especially regarding your right to leave an unsafe workplace. 

The employer has a duty to protect the health and safety of its employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974). It also has a duty to conduct a risk assessment under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999). You can refer to these obligations when dealing with management requests. If, despite this, you are put in a situation at work which presents a serious and imminent danger, you have a right under Section 44 of the Employment Act (1996) to take appropriate steps to protect yourself, including leaving and refusing to return to the workplace, without fear of repercussions. This is an individual rather than a collective right, so UCU cannot call on members to do this, but we can advise you that you have this right. For more information about Section 44, see the helpful resources prepared by UCUthe TUC, and UVW.

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