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Union demands non-essential university sites be shut down as Covid rips through London

IWGB warns that the failure unis and other businesses to furlough low-income staff and has caused dozens of its members to contract Covid-19 since the start of the year

PRECARIOUS university staff are demanding non-essential buildings be shut down and workers placed on furlough after Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s recent declaration of a major incident due to the rapid spread of coronavirus in the capital.

Workers are still providing cleaning and security services in non-essential buildings, while many doing essential work remain on zero-hours contracts without adequate financial support if they have to self-isolate, their union has warned.

The Universities of London branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is demanding hazard pay for essential work and the immediate closure of all non-essential sites, with those workers placed on furlough. 

Dozens of IWGB members working at London universities have contracted Covid-19 since the start of the year, the union warned, with at least 20 self-isolating with symptoms at University College London alone. 

IWGB general secretary Henry Chango-Lopez said: “The widespread failure of universities and other London businesses to offer furlough to low-income workers and shut down non-essential buildings has undoubtedly worsened the city’s Covid crisis. 

“We need essential rights for all essential workers and meaningful enforcement of Covid safety rules because businesses are still putting profit before peoples’ lives. 

“The rights of our city’s precarious workers are now a public-health issue.” 

University of London library worker Jenny, who has been anonymised due to fear of reprisals, said: “There has been no consultation with staff and seems to be no awareness of how serious the pandemic is in London. 

“The university is running virtual services but keeping the library open while the nation is in lockdown. This is reckless. There’s no consideration for us, the NHS or public health.”

IWGB Universities of London branch chairwoman Maritza Castillo Calle is currently at home sick with Covid-19 after being “compelled” to work through lockdown as a janitor in an empty office.

She said: “It’s been a painful, frightening and debilitating illness. I don’t want to see more people getting sick and losing their lives because universities wanted to keep up their profits.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “No employer should be risking worker health and safety during a pandemic, and it beggars belief that staff who could be furloughed are instead being told to risk their health and provide cleaning and security services at non-essential university buildings.”

“UCU has called for the majority of teaching to be done remotely until the end of this academic year as Covid makes in-person learning unsafe.

“The government said there will now be no return to in-person teaching until at least mid-February, and universities must now ensure that all staff who do not need to be on site can work remotely or are furloughed.”

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