MoJ cleaner’s death raises concerns over lack of sick pay for workers | World news

The death of a cleaner who worked at the Ministry of Justice has raised serious questions around the treatment of outsourced workers who do not receive occupational sick pay.

United Voices of the World (UVW), the trade union, said it was concerned that its member Emanuel Gomes, from Guinea Bissau, had continued to work in near-empty offices for about five days with suspected coronavirus symptoms because he believed he could not afford to lose income.

He died on 24 April after being taken home by a colleague who was among those worried about his feverish symptoms and loss of appetite. A maintenance worker at the MoJ believed to be from Pakistan also died during that week, with the circumstances around his death unclear.

Fearing that they were putting themselves at risk of contracting coronavirus, several cleaners refused to go to work at the MoJ’s 14-storey headquarters in central London on Tuesday after the deaths, according to UVW.

One of the cleaners was allegedly suspended later after criticising the response of OCS, the cleaning company, to coronavirus concerns following the death of Gomes. OCS did not comment on this specific point.

The vast majority of civil servants are working from home but the cleaners – designated key workers – have purportedly been told to work in groups of two or three at the building.

They have complained of not being provided with masks and having to commute to Westminster during peak times for their shifts.

The cleaners, who are paid £9.08 an hour, had been split into two groups to work on alternate days to limit the number of people on-site simultaneously but were back on the normal rota on 15 April, according to UVW, but OCS challenged this version of events.

Fatima Djalo, an 55-year-old cleaner from Guinea Bissau, said: “There’s no work to do. The buildings are empty. But we can’t go home and we have to stay here if we want to get paid and pay our bills.

“The bosses have fled, they’re not here. Two colleagues died last week. We’re trapped and we’re really scared. Some people are shaking with fear.”

Carlos Alberto, a 61-year-old cleaner from Brazil, said he was off work from 18 March to 19 April with suspected coronavirus and had been told he would only receive statutory sick pay of about £420.

The MoJ has not been notified of any cleaners testing positive for coronavirus nor dying from it. OCS, which employs the outsourced cleaning staff, said it has no details about the cause of Gomes’s death – he was thought to be in his 60s and had worked at the MoJ since February 2018.

Kier, the company which provides maintenance staff, did not provide any details but confirmed its workers receive occupational sick pay.

UVW said it suspects coronavirus was the cause of both deaths, and that about 70 security, maintenance and cleaning staff normally work at the MoJ.

Petros Elia, a UVW representative, said: “The death of our member Emanuel is a tragedy. In the hours before his death he became so ill he was delirious with fever and on the brink of physical collapse. However, instead of seeking medical support or simply resting at home, he had continued to drag himself into work at the MoJ.”

He questioned why the cleaners have been told to continue to work at the near empty, “barely operational” building despite the risk to themselves and their families.

“It is also utterly hypocritical of the government to simultaneously insist on lockdown and social distancing whilst instructing its cleaners to unnecessarily continue to work,” Elia added.

An OCS spokesperson said: “Sadly, we can confirm an OCS colleague passed away at home last week, having been taken ill suddenly. At this stage, we have no details about his cause of death. Our deepest sympathies are with his family, friends and colleagues at this time.”

OCS said protective equipment including rubber gloves and aprons had been provided to cleaning staff but that masks were not required to be used, in line with Public Health England guidelines.

Asked if OCS provides occupational sick pay, the spokesperson said that staff would receive “sick pay” – believed to be the statutory £96 a week, the legal minimum – “for any periods of sickness absence of self-isolation where working from home is not possible.”

They added: “Shift patterns were adjusted initially to allow colleagues to travel to and from work outside rush-hour. However, in response to colleague requests, and in recognition that colleagues often have more than one job, the shift pattern was reverted to the usual working day pattern.”

It is understood that Kier had provided vehicles so public transport could be avoided. It also staggered shifts to reduce the number of people in the same place at the same time.

An MoJ spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the two colleagues who have sadly died.

“We’re working closely with our contractors to ensure their staff have the necessary safety equipment and are complying with Public Health England advice. Our headquarters remains open for essential work that cannot be carried out from home and it’s vital staff have a safe, clean environment to protect their health and the NHS.”

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