16 March 2020

We are confronted with an extraordinary global health crisis. This is a rapidly changing situation which is causing widespread concern within the School community and wider society.

UNISON welcomes the decision of the School to begin social distancing measures on campus in response to the global COVID-19 outbreak. However, our union strongly believes that the School’s current proposals, as outlined by Pro-Director Stephen Hopgood in his email of 13 March, do not represent the scale and decisiveness of action required to best safeguard our members, colleagues, students, and the wider community during this pandemic.

We are extremely concerned that the School currently has no plans to close its campus buildings to the public, apparently aims to keep potentially high-risk spaces for COVID-19 transmission such as the Refectory, Library and Weston Student Hub open for use, and continues to require the majority of office-based and estates & facilities staff to commute into central London and undertake their duties in crowded work environments. Already, two UNISON members working in the cleaning team are undertaking self-isolation after unsuspectingly entering a room at SOAS potentially contaminated with COVID-19 without being issued with the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and in one case it appears without being forewarned of the risk once this should reasonably have been known to the School.

Our position is that if it is not safe for students to come onto campus, it is not safe for staff. The School should not place the staff in its care in a position of having to choose between meeting their basic financial obligations and protecting their own health and the health of others.

In this regard, Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act (1996) provide for employees to remove themselves from unsafe work situations. In this case, our members have to think not simply of the safety of those attending any particular front-line service, office environment or meeting, but of the potential spread of the virus to all the other people that they have contact with. UNISON is ready to work with the School to ensure the health and safety of staff and students. However, we will not hesitate to advise our members to prioritise their safety and wellbeing and that of their families and communities.

At this time of crisis we believe the School must urgently commit to safe, appropriate and fair modes of socially distanced working.

Specifically, we call on the School leadership to take the following actions:

Immediate Actions

1. Close all School buildings by the end of the day on Tuesday 17 March, and offer all SOAS academic, professional services and support staff (including estates and facilities staff), the opportunity to work from home or paid emergency leave.

2. Urgently convene a meeting involving representatives from all three campus unions with senior management crisis management group responding to COVID-19, for a thorough review and revision of the School’s approach to keeping ourselves, our students and our local community safe.

3. Ensure thereafter that all three campus unions have representation on the crisis management group responding to COVID-19, with regular and remote consultation.

4. Provide a full public account of the recent COVID-19 incident at the School and review of policies, procedures and PPE relating to any cleaning undertaken during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Remote Working

1. Acknowledge that members of staff who agree to remote working during the coming period are voluntarily working beyond their contractual obligations and job descriptions due the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak. This is done on the basis of goodwill towards their colleagues and students. No precedent or change to substantive terms and conditions of staff should be deemed to have been agreed by staff or the campus unions. Our homes are not university workspaces.

2. Agree that no members of staff should be penalised because they cannot complete the normal responsibilities of their job remotely, due to either the nature of their duties or the fact they do not possess adequate access to personal technology or internet facilities.

3. Acknowledge that when working from home, staff accrue additional costs (e.g. gas, electricity and broadband). These should be treated as work expenses and remunerated accordingly.

4. Agree that all work communication will be conducted through School email accounts, work phones and IT systems. No member of staff should be expected to provide personal contact details (e.g. personal email, telephone or Skype) to the School for operational purposes.

Pay, Sick Pay and Caring Responsibilities

1. Ensure there is no financial detriment, in terms of loss of contractual pay, hourly paid work, or regular overtime, to any member of staff, regardless of contract type or visa status, as a result of COVID-19-related closures, cancellations, or self-isolation.

2. Confirm that any period of COVID-19 related sick leave or self-isolation will be covered by paid emergency leave and will not count towards either occupational sick pay entitlement limits or trigger points as set out in the School’s Sickness Absence Policy.

3. Ensure staff who are unable to complete the normal responsibilities of their job due to additional care duties caused by COVID-19 (such as caring for ill family members or children being sent home from closed nurseries or schools) will not be required to take unpaid Emergency Dependents Leave or suffer any financial detriment.

SOAS UNISON Branch Committee