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Open letter to the University and all members of staff, concerning Cleaning Services

Dear All,

UNISON in recent weeks (and most recently in a meeting with the Director, Deputy Directors and Heads of HR) has been desperately attempting to gain more information and reassurance around the work staff in Campus Services and particularly Cleaning Services will be doing over the “restricted operations period” due to start at the end of the day on Friday the 20th of March.

This has included requests for risk assessments, the definition of “essential work” and other information necessary to understand the steps being taken to safeguard the safety of staff and others on campus. 

While, after persistent union pressure and the changing Government guidelines, the University has thankfully moved to restrict operations on campus from Friday 20th March (and not the 27th March as originally planned) and has made a number of steps to ensure those who cannot work for a variety of reasons are paid, we are deeply concerned about the measures being taken in some parts of Campus Services around so-called “essential work”.

UNISON has not yet been consulted on the principles and mechanisms for this work next week (despite repeated urging to give us information and consult on this with us, most recently in an urgent meeting on Friday 20.03.20), but we understand that members of staff in cleaning services on the morning of Friday 20.03.20 were advised the following:

  • All cleaning staff are on a rota to work a three hour shift on a particular day every week until the end of the closure period. The slips given to staff along with the accompanying advice give staff the impression they must still report regardless of what happens with the pandemic, and does not refer to keeping them up to date if things change on campus or elsewhere. 
  • If they care for a vulnerable person at home they must still report for this shift or take unpaid leave for an undefined period
  • All cleaning staff due in on a particular day must report to the same, relatively small, clock-in point at the Medical School at the start of their shift (which is likely to be circa 30-40 staff members based on the size of the department). They will then be sent around the campus to do as yet unspecified tasks in as yet unspecified locations. 
  • When cleaning staff queried about what to do about the fact that public transport will be much less reliable, they were told to wait to be collected by a University ‘minibus’, again placing workers in close proximity.
  • Some staff have been asked to report for work in the evening, despite normally working a morning shift.
  • If they do not report for work, they may face disciplinary action.

Furthermore in the past week we understand that cleaning services managers have misled staff about the fact that there has been a confirmed* case of Coronavirus on campus and about their entitlements to sick pay and paid leave to look after dependents. 

Given that the University has not even informed staff and students about the confirmed case of Coronavirus, and in the current context of minimal testing to confirm cases, it is reasonable to assume that the risks posed by the working conditions on campus could be higher than commonly believed. Most importantly we have also heard of cases where cleaning services managers have told staff with diagnosed underlying health conditions specified by Public Health England that they should remain in work. 

UNISON’s committee is very concerned that this poor management puts everyone’s safety at risk. It is absolutely essential that staff in cleaning services are given the same information as that given to all other staff. 

Given the above misinformation, we would particularly like to reassure all staff regarding the following contractual and safety features negotiated between the University and the unions:

  1. If you are pregnant, over 70 or have underlying health conditions specified by Public Health England you should not be at work and the University has committed to guaranteeing your pay.  
  2. If you have symptoms of coronavirus you should not come to work for at least 7 days and follow the Public Health England guidance. The University has guaranteed that you will be paid.
  3. If someone you live with has symptoms, you should not come to work for at least 14 days and follow the Public Health England guidance.
  4. The University has recognised that staff may find it impossible to provide a fit note in the current situation.
  5. The Vice Chancellor, in an email dated 18.03.20 stated if you “live with or care for somebody in one of [the at risk] groups and you are concerned for their welfare you do not need to come onto campus. Instead you should notify your line manager that you will be making alternative working arrangements with immediate effect.’
  6. Those responsible for the care of children or vulnerable adults during this very difficult time are entitled to at least two weeks of dependent leave (which will be reviewed as the situation continues)

Any of the above personal situations are valid reasons to state you cannot come into work according to solid commitments given by the University online and in emails to staff. 

Aside from the above, the institution also has a duty to plan and conduct its work in a safe way, and as part of this to properly consult with trade union safety representatives and provide them with the information that they need to ensure the safety of staff. 

The above misleading statements from particular managers do, we feel, call into question their ability to manage safely in the current environment, not least because of the risk that staff members with underlying conditions will feel compelled to come into work. Staff without underlying conditions may quite rightly feel that their presence in work could put these other members of staff at unnecessary risk.

Any member of staff reporting for work during the closed period needs to be reassured that:

  • The work is genuinely necessary for the conduct of essential University business such as supporting the small number of students remaining at the institution, supporting the continuation of essential research or the operation of the small number of other continuing services such as the provision of nursery places to the children of key workers
  • They are not doing so in contravention of government instructions, including those that encourage the vast majority of workers to stay at home
  • The work is safe and properly risk assessed
  • The work does not pose undue risks to others, particularly those with underlying health conditions

Should any member of staff feel this is not the case and feels as such that the work might represent a serious and imminent risk to safety, there are clear legal grounds for refusing it. In terms of the risk to staff of refusing work, UNISON has repeatedly informed the University that any threat of disciplinary action is unjust and very legally questionable, and the University has now removed this reference from their FAQ. Some managers have also threatened to withhold pay for not reporting for these shifts but we struggle to see how this would be fair or would work in practice.  

If any member feels what they are asked to do is fundamentally unsafe, we will fully support them in refusing to do it. UNISON again urges the University to properly consult with us on the nature and necessity of this work so we can work with them on ensuring it is conducted safely.

With all best wishes,

Birmingham University UNISON committee

(letter send to the University of Birmingham on Saturday 21st March 2020).


Message to allies on campus

When you see University-wide communications sent to all staff, please think about your colleagues in cleaning, catering, accommodation, and hospitality, as well as those in administration and other services; they may not have been informed about these communications in time or correctly. Ask your support staff colleagues if they are encountering any difficulties at work; if so, please support them. While the university is quick to send all-staff emails with updates and what they think are good news, this information is not always accessed by staff who do not use emails as part of their jobs. The trickled-down messages and practices end up taking a different form from those that you may expect to see in a self-professed civic university of our calibre. 



* Internal communications email from the Vice Chancellor, sent on 10/03/2020 at 17.08, promising to communicate any cases to staff and students:

“There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 amongst our staff and students and only one to date in Birmingham. However, please be mindful that the national situation is evolving rapidly. Should PHE advise us of a confirmed case connected to the campus, we will issue official communications to staff and students advising of this and of any specific additional measures that may be required.”

Twitter Update: ‘Staff in cleaning services have been rota’ed in for the next few months (even during the university lockdown), and were told by managers that if they don’t come into work, they will be disciplined’. Below is a photo of the paper slip that cleaning managers used on Friday 20th March. The University of Birmingham’s Buzz Twitter account called it ‘#FakeNews’, however upon our reply to reassure them that this is not the case, they thankfully retracted their accusation by deleting their tweet (which they had posted multiple times in response to all our supporters).

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