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03.03.2023 / News /

Covid-19 public inquiry begins: UVW’s frontline migrant health workers will be heard!

After a successful appeal, UVW members will now give a first-hand account at the government’s public Covid-19 Inquiry of how they faced as low-wage, front-line, outsourced workers in the healthcare sector the pandemic and its aftermath.

Cleaners, security guards, porters, caterers, and other healthcare workers – to cite just a few – kept the country moving during the pandemic at great risk to their health. Predominantly outsourced to reckless private companies, on inferior terms and conditions than those workers from established trade unions directly employed by the NHS itself, many had no sick pay during the pandemic  and could not afford to self-isolate or faced financial ruin if they did so.  Now, they will be able to tell their side of the story. 

UVW’s initial application to join the Covid-19 Inquiry was rejected on the basis that other organisations had been invited to make submissions on behalf of health sector, unionised, minority or migrant members (the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations (FEMHO), a group that unites health professionals – primarily doctors and nurses – from ethnic minority backgrounds, and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), a trade union umbrella organisation). With the support of the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) we successfully challenged this decision by arguing that our members’ experiences are unique and distinct from doctors and nurses and that the inquiry had a duty to hear them too. 

So, at the end of February we were told that we were finally allowed to take part as joint core participants alongside two more organisations: the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Filipino domestic worker’s charity Kanlungan. Our group is called  Frontline Migrant Health Workers’ Group (FMHWG) and will contribute to Module 3 of the Inquiry which will focus on healthcare workers alone and the response to the pandemic. Workers in the “gig economy”, like private cleaners, sex or hospitality workers, are not included in this module but we remain hopeful the Inquiry will include other sectors at a later date. Rest assured we will apply to be core participants again if and when this happens. 

Helen Mowatt, lawyer at PILC who is representing the FMHWG, explained: “What was clearly missing was the outsourced workers, the cleaners the couriers, the porters, all those workers who were not being heard at all during Covid-19, and who were still going to be completely left out of the conversation in the Inquiry, because you can’t just lump those workers with the nurses and doctors because their experiences are entirely different. So we argued that the inquiry had a duty to take equality issues seriously and it wouldn’t be doing that if it was going to just consider all these myriad of experiences as one of the same. The inquiry would be missing the voices of frontline outsourced migrant workers in particular, who were just not going to be heard in the same way through the TUC or a more professional body like FEMHO.” 

Some UVW members faced discrimination and potential dismissal when they refused work for fear of catching the virus, and many among them didn’t have access to furlough at all and even denied basic protective gear (also known as PPE). In one case, a UVW member, a cleaner at the Ministry of Justice, was suspected of having died with the virus. UVW expects the government to investigate, reflect and address why low-paid, outsourced workers,  Black and brown, ethnic and racial minorities were impacted more than any other groups by the pandemic. 

Our members will tell the inquiry and the wider British public about the effect of the pandemic on their lives, workplaces and communities, so that lessons can be learnt and things can be changed. Affected by the disastrous government’s handling of the crisis, our members will share their experiences and stories, which we hope will inform thorough questioning of government officials over their actions during the pandemic. 

We will keep an eye on proceedings to make sure they do!

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