UK unions resist ‘back to work’ push

By on 29/07/2020
Awaiting their return: civil servants fear the drive to repopulate offices is about revitalising empty city centres rather than delivering public services. (Photo by Stephen McKay via Wikimedia Commons).

UK civil service unions are challenging the government’s policy of pulling home-working staff back into their offices, with leaders suggesting that it is more interested in restoring city centre economies than protecting employees’ health.

Last week civil service chief operating office Alex Chisholm sent a letter to all permanent secretaries, calling for an “acceleration” back to the workplace from 1 August, when the government’s work from home guidance comes to an end. The letter requests departments to prepare assessments of the “productivity impacts associated with remote working… and your plans to address any backlogs in service fulfilment that have built up as a result of enforced absence from office working,” the Daily Mail reported.

In response the UK’s largest civil service union, The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), said there could be “serious industrial unrest” if senior leaders require staff to come back in from the beginning of August. “People should only go back to work when it is safe to do so. Everyone’s health and safety must be the top priority,” a PCS statement said. “Our advice to members is clear, if you are working from home and you get approached by anyone in your department asking you to now go back to work, don’t just accept that’s what you have to do.”

Leave the genie free

Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service managers union the FDA, told the Guardian that many civil servants are performing as well, if not more effectively, working remotely, arguing that there must be proper planning as offices and public transport cannot yet cope with a full return. “There will always be work that cannot be done remotely but the future of work was already changing and the last six months has accelerated that,” he said. “Ministers need to understand that the genie is out of the bottle and there’s no going back,” he later tweeted.

Unions are suspect that the government wants to use thousands of civil servants to encourage other staff to return to their offices. The call for civil servants to return to the workplace is “based entirely on political pressure being exerted by some Tory MPs who are demanding that the civil service is used as an example to get everybody back to work,” the PCS statement said.

Sandwich filling

There is also a feeling the move has much to do with propping up faltering city-centre economies by providing customers for shops, cafes and pubs. Tory MPs are reportedly concerned mass home-working is turning UK city centres into ghost towns. But Penman told the Mirror that civil servants are there to provide vital public services, “not simply supply customers to city-centre economies at a risk to their personal health.”

On Monday the government defended the move to get civil servants back to the office, saying it is in line with the guidance for all workers. “Just as we’ve advised businesses to do we’re consulting closely with employees on the change to the default that civil servants should work from home,” the prime minister’s spokesperson told Politics Home.

“Each department will need to provide assurance that government workplaces are COVID-secure and that employees’ individual circumstances will be taken into account with no individual having to return where there are health reasons for them not to do so.”

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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