The Burner Episode #237: Remembering Emanuel Gomes

Ash Sarkar on class and coronavirus risk. Plus, is lockdown unfair on the young?

Transcript

Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m Ash Sarkar and it is Thursday May 14, 2020. And we are still in lockdown.

Emanuel Gomes earns just £9.08 an hour cleaning offices at the Ministry of Justice, employed by the commercial cleaning arm of the OCS group. It had been near empty for a few weeks by the time Emanuel lost his appetite and developed a fever. Most staff at the MoJ had been working from home since the lockdown was announced in mid-March, but about 70 cleaning, security and maintenance staff kept going into the 14-story block in central London. Emanuel had travelled on packed public transport to make it in time for the day shift, scared he’d lose income if he self-isolated. Emanuel kept going into work for about five days after developing symptoms. By the time a co-worker took him home, he was delirious and on the brink of physical collapse. By April 24, Emanuel was dead. He left behind a wife and a daughter.

How did someone end up in the position where they had to risk their life in order to clean a scarcely operational office? To explain a bit more about why Emanuel still had to go into work, here’s Molly from United Voices of the World, the union of which Emanuel was a member.

Molly: So, when the lockdown measures were announced, it didn’t actually force a lot of places of work to close or forced them to reduce their services. It simply closed places like cinemas, gyms, cafes, restaurants, and advised that anyone who could work from home should do so. But it meant that a lot of workplaces were continuing to work and we’ve seen that a lot among our memberships, where cleaners have still been required to continue working in cleaning offices, which are in fact empty, at the client’s request because the company wants to keep the contract etc, etc. Now, in the case of the Ministry of Justice, you’ve got the added factor that because it’s a government building, they’ve classified workers as government key workers. And if said that the workers in those buildings are key workers… It’s completely absurd because the Ministry of Justice normally has a footfall of up to 5,000 people and it’s reported that there’s been no more than 100 civil servants entering Petty France, the Ministry of Justice headquarters, on any given day. And so it’s completely unnecessary to have the full workforce going in, on their full and normal shifts, the day shifts, traveling at rush hour and coming into contact with other members of the public. They did at one point reduce the services, the cleaning requirements so that people were doing every other day. But apparently, the Ministry of Justice required that they resume the full shifts. So, as a result, even though it’s completely unnecessary, they’re having to go into work every day and carry out their normal shifts.

AS: Emanuel was one of the millions of people who make up Britain’s so-called elementary workforce. The 11% of workers who’ve so far experienced a death rate up to four times higher than white collar professionals. These workers include cleaners, like Emanuel, bus and coach drivers, carers, security guards and warehouse workers. Many are outsourced workers, meaning they work for much bigger companies, like Emanuel did. Many are on precarious contracts, and are underpaid, with little entitlement to sick pay beyond the statutory minimum or even guaranteed hours. One cleaner at Emanuel’s workplace had taken about a month off after experiencing Corona virus symptoms and he was entitled to just £420 in statutory sick pay. £420 pounds for four weeks.

On Sunday night, Boris Johnson announced to the nation that anyone who cannot work from home – construction and factory workers, cleaners, nannies, security guards, etc – should get back to working as normal. It was advised that returning workers should avoid taking public transport. Though little was said of the 46% of London households who don’t have a car to help them out with the average 13-mile London commute.

After footage emerged of rammed tubes at Canning Town – London’s workforce apparently having failed to develop the ability to teleport in the 12 hours since Boris Johnson’s televised address – it was rapidly clarified that the government had intended Wednesday to be the nation’s back to work day, with a 50+ pages [guidance] on how to safely do so appearing at some point after lunch on Monday morning.

Despite Frances O’Grady of the TUC condemning Johnson’s plans as a recipe for chaos, yesterday was the first official launch day of the back to work drive. And accompanying the images of packed buses in Newham were the dolourus tweets of the right-wing commentariat bemoaning the fact that the country’s trade unions were slowing down the return of Britain’s blue-collar workers.

Regular scheduled service was being held up by union fat cats asking for things like statutory obligations of PPE for workers and social distancing measures in workplaces. “The unions are being complete pains” said Charlotte Gill of Conservative Home. Didn’t want anyone to have a job?

Madeline Grant of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph sharply criticised the country’s failure to accept the impermanence of all flesh tweeting that “a depressingly large segment of society seems unable to get its head around the idea that we cannot be completely safe from covid-19, in the same way that we can never be entirely safe from cancer, road accidents and all the other horrible ways people die every minute of the day”.

A note for our listeners that have been at least 50,000 to excess deaths during the pandemic so far in the UK, compared to just under 1,900 fatalities from road accidents in the entirety of last year. [And] 1,900 deaths are why we have things like speed limits, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, and these weird things called roads, which stopped cars from driving into buildings, willy-nilly. So, I wonder what kind of precautions we might take if the number of fatalities were to be scores higher than even that.

Look, no one saying that no one should have to go back to work ever again.

[Aaron Bastani: I’m saying that.]

Most people aren’t saying that nobody should have to go back to work ever again. What’s being contested are the conditions under which certain classes of people are expected to expose themselves to risk. Yesterday, there were about 500 deaths announced, and over 3,200 new reported cases, and if that’s too dangerous for your sister to come around and have a cuppa, why is it safer for a cleaner to come round and scrub your toilets?

As far as I know, getting paid £8.72 an hour to be somewhere doesn’t stop you [from] contracting or transmitting the virus while you’re there. With testing and contact tracing still in utter chaos, it’s unclear how new clusters of infection will be monitored, as millions of blue-collar workers returned to their jobs.

And with the new published guidance suggesting that even workers living with vulnerable and elderly people should come out of their homes to work, an unconscionable amount of pressure is being placed on workers to manage risk, not only for themselves but for those closest to them. Well paid journalists, who get to work from home, writing up that blue-collar workers should risk their lives for the minimum wage, should be treated with maximum contempt.

But let’s not lose sight of the real injustice, which is that after seven weeks of lockdown, there are still no increases in statutory sick pay, which would enable those workers to take time off. Furlough is an opt-in option for employers, not an elective option for employees. PPE and social distancing measures differ wildly from workplace to workplace. In short, the conditions which killed Emanuel in April are this week more commonplace than ever. And it won’t be consequence free.

But, when you immiserate workers, workers tend to organise. And those unions, derided it by much of the commentariat, may find themselves more central to public life than at any time since the 1980s. Listen to this.

Karen, United Voices of the World: “You have to have no doubt that these will continue to widen the social gap in the country. What it also is doing is that it is enraging to a lot of us and angering a lot of us, especially in our trade union. As you know, United Voices of the World an unapologetic trade union. We fear no one when it comes to fighting for workers. We fear absolutely no one when saying that it’s enough that workers are paid the wages that they are being paid. And what angers me the most is that it continues to grow the social gap. So, we, as you know, have been very successful in securing important victories – long due victories – for workers and we will continue to do so. And what Covid has done for us, although we are extremely sad for Emanuel’s case…

And lessons learned for them? I don’t think there have been any. But we have learned a lot. This is enriching our vision; it’s actually enriching this very sad death of a comrade. It’s giving us a lot of strength, a lot of vision and a lot of comraderie between us, to fight for a better cause and better opportunities for our workers. And we’ll make sure that his death doesn’t go without the legacy that he would have liked for his comrades in UVW and workers across the country and the world. The Covid is showing that the situation stinks for low wage workers and it’s global. Thank you very much.”

AS: That was Karen from United Voices of the World, a former cleaner herself and a comrade of Emanuel Gomes, who, like so many other workers whose names we don’t even know, was taken from us before his time. He leaves behind devastated loved ones and we will all fight in his memory to make sure that his loss was not in vain.

With new data showing that pensioner is 34 times more likely to die from coronavirus, it’s a time to liberate young people from lockdown. Jonathan Haynes of The Guardian and Nick Cohen of The Observer are just two of the journos expressing concern that young people, who are going to be paying for this for decades according to Haynes, are seeing their freedoms constrained despite facing little risk themselves from the virus.

Putting aside for a moment that there have been under 50s dying from Covid-19, particularly those in low wage jobs and there are indeed young people with health conditions which put them at risk, are Nick and Jonathan onto something? Should young people be set free to frolic amongst the pestilence and get the economy moving again?

Well, it depends on what kind of lives you think young people were living before. Missing from this analysis of pre-Covid, footloose and fancy-free youth are any mention of young carers.

There are at least 41,000 such people aged 16 to 25 in the UK who received the carer’s allowance. And the BBC estimates that the number of actual young carers is more like 700,000. While much of the economy has been mothballed during the pandemic, this kind of labour, both paid and unpaid, hasn’t stopped. And with the adult social care system in total disarray, it’s unlikely to anytime soon.

It’s not entirely inevitable either that today’s young people are going to have to be the ones paying off the debts incurred by the government’s job retention scheme. Governments can tax wealth as well as income and not every 20 something is out here moving like the Duke of Westminster. I can assure you I’m not.

One in five baby boomers, however, is a millionaire, with their wealth having doubled in the decade following the financial crisis. At a time when real incomes took a hit, debt inflated assets like houses soared, contributing perhaps to young people being less likely to own a house than previous generations, and being left without savings because of covering day to day living costs.

And it’s not necessarily a reason for the government’s repayments on its corona debts to be all that onerous. It depends on how fast the treasury wishes to pay the debts back.

Don’t believe me?

Well, in 1833 the treasury took out a loan worth about £20bn in today’s money to compensate slave owners after the emancipation of their human property. How sad. Everyone shed a tear for them.

But, anyway, it wasn’t until 2015 that the last of this loan was paid off. Regardless of whether the expense was just or not – I’m going with not – it’s highly likely that the taxes you‘ve paid went towards covering a debt incurred in 1833 when the treasury spent 40% of its annual budget on a one-off cost. And you probably never even noticed.

So, young people are only going to be screwed over by the coronavirus crisis if the current economic model is prioritised over rebuilding the country in a more equitable fashion. Perhaps Nick and Jonathan could spend a little time getting worked up about that instead.

In today’s headlines, the FT leads with “Federal Reserve chair warns further economic stimulus may be needed“, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warns on debt load.

The Metro splashes “COLLARED!” across an image of Boris Johnson walking his dog in the park, and features Keir Starmer’s attacks on the government’s record on care homes at PMQs yesterday.

The Mirror calls the floated public sector pay freeze an “elite treasury document, a betrayal of our NHS heroes”.

While The Times leads with “PM told don’t raise taxes”.

The Telegraph says “first test for virus antibodies approved”. Don’t get my hopes up again, lads, will you?

And The Mail indulges in some front page onanism with “Now your Mail Force vital PPE is made in Britain!”.

The Guardian leads on “Ministers face new claim of failing to prepare care homes for outbreak”.

And The i splashes “Care homes’ cash pledge after PM is accused of misleading MPs”.

It’s not a tremendously exciting day in Commons select committees. Though, if you’re into that kind of thing, the Health and Social Care Committee will be hearing oral evidence on delivering core NHS and care services during the pandemic and beyond.

And if you’re after a lazy but delicious curry made with stuff you might have in your cupboard, may I suggest combining a jar of red curry paste with a bit of peanut butter, cumin, cinnamon, coriander seeds, cardamom, nutmeg, a lick of honey and a can of coconut milk. It’s not a massaman, but it’s not bad either.

That’s it for this morning, you reprobates. I’m outta here. You can get in touch with me on Twitter @ayocaesar. And, as ever, you can keep your questions, tips and shade coming by tweeting us @NovaraMedia or using the hashtag #TheBurner.

I’ll be releasing James Butler from the chokey later today, and he’ll be back on the airwaves by tomorrow for his edition of The Burner.

I’ll be seeing you next week. Until then, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and don’t be a prick.

I’ve been Ash Sarkar. This is The Burner.

Bye, bitch.

This broadcast is brought to you by Novara Media. Go to novaramedia.com/support.

 

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