Operating Heathrow during strike action could risk safety warns Unite the Union (unitetheunion.org)

November 30, 2020

Unite, the UK’s principal aviation union, has warned that it has very serious concerns about the safe operation of Heathrow airport when the first targeted strike action, in the dispute over firing and rehiring the workforce and slashing their pay and conditions, begins tomorrow (Tuesday 1 December).

The strike action will involve firefighters, engineers, campus security, baggage operations, campus security, central terminal operations, landside and airside workers.

Safety concerns

Unite believes that with these workers on strike the airport cannot operate safely. Heathrow Airport Ltd, which operates the airport, has claimed to have contingency measures in place, in order to operate the airport.

However, despite Unite representing thousands of workers who are based at the airport and will still be expected to work, HAL has refused to discuss its contingency plans, including whether it has updated risk assessments, what training the staff who will be covering the striking workers have undertaken and whether or not they possess the required skills and qualifications to run the airport.

Information lacking

Despite HAL claiming to have full contingency measures in place to operate the airport safely, the company has also written to Unite requesting that if a ‘major’ or ‘critical’ incident is declared during a strike then the union ensures that the workforce returns to work immediately.

Unite has drawn up a large dossier of the skills and training that the workers in the different sectors will need in order to operate the airport safely, but it has been rebuffed in its attempts to discover if the workers covering these areas are suitably qualified.

Issues raised

Unite has written to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the transport select committee about its concerns over Heathrow’s contingency plans. Unite has also alerted its sister unions representing other workers at the airport about its concerns.

Union concerned

Unite regional co-ordinating officer Wayne King said: “Unite has severe concerns that Heathrow airport will not be able to operate safely during the forthcoming strikes. However, everytime we have sought further information we have been rebuffed.

“Unite is urging the CAA and the HSE to ensure that safety levels have not been compromised as a result of HAL’s contingency planning and that they make sure Unite is involved in those conversations.

“There are thousands of passengers and workers who will be using the airport during the strike and they require cast iron guarantees that the airport will operate in an entirely safe manner.

“Despite Unite asking a series of questions and despite the company having a legal duty to discuss its plans with our safety representatives it has refused to do so.

“By its own admission HAL’s contingency plans only go so far, as the company will need Unite workers to immediately return to work if a major incident should occur.

“Heathrow workers take great pride in their work and have continued to operate throughout the pandemic, and have been required to put their own health at risk attending to passengers who have developed Covid?

“They are taking strike action as a last resort as cuts to their pay of up to a quarter are forcing them into poverty. To add insult to injury Heathrow has sought to force through its fire and rehire proposals in the most brutal manner possible.

“Unite has offered a variety of solutions to reduce costs and avoid industrial action, all of which have been summarily dismissed by HAL.”

Cash reserves

Heathrow Airport, which has repeatedly boasted that it has cash reserves to survive for 15 months even if a single plane does not land at the airport, is trying to force workers to accept permanent pay cuts of up to £8,000 per annum (a quarter of their total pay).

The first strike date this Tuesday (1 December) is symbolic as it coincides with the date workers are beginning to be forced onto the far inferior contracts. A further one day strike is planned for Monday 14 December with a two day stoppage taking place on Thursday 17 December and Friday 18 December.

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