Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Extension to Furlough Scheme Welcomed by Logistics Sector but Unions Express Concerns

Return to Work Needs Safety Measures in Place
Shipping News Feature

UK – The extension of the government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has received a welcome from all sectors with employers and unions alike agreeing that the policy is a sound one. There are drawbacks and reservations of course and two parties from opposite sides of the transport and logistics table have laid their cards accordingly.

The Chancellor’s announcement stated the furloughing scheme would be extended to October with, from the beginning of August workers able to return part-time, employers paying a percentage of their salaries. Government figures indicate the job retention scheme has protected 7.5 million workers and almost 1 million businesses. Chancellor Rishi Sunak said:

”Our Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has protected millions of jobs and businesses across the UK during the outbreak, and I’ve been clear that I want to avoid a cliff edge and get people back to work in a measured way. This extension and the changes we are making to the scheme will give flexibility to businesses while protecting the livelihoods of the British people and our future economic prospects.”

However the maintenance of a scheme costing £14 billion a month, more than the normal cost of the NHS is a price that will need repaying, with a leaked document today saying the Treasury is considering future tax increases, hardly a surprise there then, where else would the cash come from?

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) said the furlough extension means firms will be better prepared to service inconsistent and unpredictable workloads as the economy begins its recovery. However, hauliers will remain cautious until the Government releases further detail later this month. The RHA has been urging Mr Sunak for a number of industry support measures including debt support, a fuel duty rebate, and a business rates holiday and chief executive, Richard Burnett, said:

“We’ve been calling for improved measures which will offer employers greater flexibility to get their furloughed staff safely back to work as and when volumes dictate. This announcement is a welcome step but we need to see the finer detail and what it all means for businesses gearing up for recovery.”

With one of the main points about which everyone involved is concerned being how to reinvigorate the economy with opportunities to bring people back into work, Freight Transport Association (FTA) Chief Executive David Wells, was singing from the same hymn sheet when he said:

“The announcement of the extension of the government’s furloughing scheme will be welcomed by logistics businesses that have been directly impacted by the shutdown of the economy, providing a longer term stability to protect their staff from redundancy. However, it is vital that the option of part-time furloughing is made available to our sector now, to accommodate the gradual return of trade in all sectors.

”Demand will return to different sectors at different rates and it is unlikely to accommodate full time working right across industry, therefore, it is imperative that logistics businesses be given the flexibility to scale up their workforce in increments, to manage the financial risk of bringing staff back gradually. Without this option, the impact on our sector is likely to be significant and that could have a considerable effect on productivity across the entire economy.”

The primary concern for the GMB union is of course the safety of workers as and when they are recalled to work, something the Prime Minister said all should try to achieve if practical, and it called for meaningful talks with employers to agree the implementation of safe working practices and ensure that adequate protection is provided and enforced for all staff.

The union calls for a phased introduction back to work, including a full risk assessment agreed with each worker and the supply of necessary, adequate and correct PPE it says is essential if the country is to avoid a second wave of the pandemic. Shaun Graham, Senior Health and Safety Officer, GMB London said:

“Working safely during Covid-19, the government’s latest guidelines on safe working during the pandemic are not enough to deter reckless employers from forcing workers back to work in environments where exposure to Covid-19 is still a very real risk. The latest ONS figures on Covid-19 related deaths present data that confirms that low-paid workers working through the health crisis are more likely to die from Covid-19.

"During this health crisis GMB London continues to support many members whose lives have been at great risk of exposure to Covid-19 simply because their employers have taken little or no heed of government guidance on social distancing and safe working. These employers include some of the nation’s household names where sadly, we have lost the lives of our members to Covid-19."

Perhaps the comment from Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General on hearing of the Chancellor’s future plans sums up the situation best, when she said:

”Above all, the path of the virus is unpredictable, and much change still lies ahead. The government must continue to keep a watchful eye on those industries and employees that remain at risk. All schemes will need to be kept under review to help minimise impacts on people’s livelihoods and keep businesses thriving. The greater the number of good businesses saved now, the easier it will be for the economy to recover.”