Before the situation developed in Italy, I suppose I was caught out like most people in thinking this was something that would blow over. It hasn’t, some of my reassuring messages and conversations with friends, colleagues and family almost dismissing the situation earlier during the pandemic now seem childishly naive.
When the first reported cases of infections and deaths made the news in England and momentum had started to build nationally of a forthcoming crisis, the complete absence of any information from my workplace seemed bizarre and somewhat negligent. Surely, the events globally would spark some dialogue in the workplace? By the 2nd week of March, the only communication was a ‘wash your hands’ notice in the canteen.
It wasn’t until my daughter, who had developed a high temperature, and in-line with the government messages to self-isolate all family members for 14 days, did I begin to realise that the business I work for wasn’t being naive with the situation and passively complacent, but, deliberately silent in the pursuit of economic gain.
I messaged my line manager to rhetorically confirm whether I should self-isolate given my daughter’s symptoms. I even included a screenshot of the news with the new social distancing and self-isolating restrictions being imposed by the government. My manager responded by seeking confirmation from the Managing Director, who to my disbelief, responded that I should come in.
At work the next day, several of my colleagues were equally bemused and concerned that I had returned to work. I met the Director several times during the day and he remained completely silent on the situation, regarding not only the well-being of my daughter, but, the implications and reasoning of why he had asked me to come into work. He seemed to occupy himself throughout the day with, rather than providing leadership and reassurance during this unprecedented time, but by tidying up, in almost delusional ‘re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic’ oblivion.
As the day at work passed the implications of me possibly being infectious and endangering the health and lives of colleagues at work and beyond, became too much. I decided to email other managers at work questioning the conflicting decision of being asked to come in, the resulting personal guilt I felt and deafening silence of the management team on this issue.
I work in a non-unionised workplace, as far as I know, I am the only employee at work who is a union member. We have no HR department, the Managing Director fulfils a dual position of HR and Director. This arrangement isn’t for economic reasons, but, for the sole reason of consolidating decision making and redress within an organisation. This conflicting arrangement isn’t something that has come to light in the recent crisis, but, was unashamedly displayed when my colleagues and team members were cheated out of their jobs a year ago. He is, by design, judge, jury and executioner.
I was fortunate, my somewhat mild agitational email had caused, along with the Directors increasing awareness of his untenable stance, for him to relent and begin to realise the consequences of his decision. However, between the Director and my line Manager, they still seemed to paint the situation as this was my decision to make, to leave and self-isolate with family, rather than sending me home because I shouldn’t be here.
During the period of self-isolation I received several supportive messages from colleagues at work and also ones of concern. A day after me going home a second member of staff had to self-isolate. Again, this information wasn’t officially disclosed to the work-force, we still hadn’t received any information reiterating government demands to prioritise working from home, social distancing, the requirements to self-isolate along with other precautions.
Eventually the gravity of the situation and unavoidable impact of school closures resulted in an acknowledgment of the situation we were in. Unsurprisingly, the belated company communication had to finish on a spiteful note, suspicious that the work from home ‘privileges’ could be taken advantage of and would be curtailed, in the event of abuse, for everyone.
Again, this accusatory tone was repeated in further correspondence, that working people, in this unprecedented situation, having to come to terms with a life threatening global pandemic, adjusting to, in most cases for the first time, in creating office work space in their homes and caring for their children simultaneously, were now somehow being deliberately maligned as work-shy employees who couldn’t be trusted.
The reality, during this crisis, has been the collective solidarity of working class people, who have selflessly volunteered to support the NHS. At the time of writing, the number of ordinary people volunteering had reached over half a million, an incredible response, not only smashing the false paradigm of self interest, but to potentially place themselves at personal risk, in organising to support public need. The baffling contradiction, when being implored by frontline health workers to stay at home, to keep us all safe has again been flagrantly ignored by private profiteers, my colleagues are at work right now, producing non-essential goods, that in some cases, can’t even be delivered to our customers because they have closed their doors.
These past few weeks at work and in previous moments of economic crises when the business hasn’t fared well, the illusory mask of the system has slipped to reveal the genuine face of our employer. It isn’t a one of a benevolent boss, trying his best to be fair, making sacrifices so no one loses out, fighting to keep us all in our jobs. But one where women workers, workers with disabilities, workers with mental health issues, people who speak out are marginalised and cheated out of their livelihoods.
It’s been just over a week of self-isolation for me and my family. There is an almost eerie quiet at times in my home and the streets around us. Without being able to leave the house we have become even closer as family, we now share all our meals together, watch the same programmes even homework has become a family event.
But this calm belies the ensuing economic desperation that’s going to befall us, like many other families during these difficult times; there may not be a job to go back to and we might not all make it through. The quarantine restrictions will eventually be lifted and that’s when we must rise, united in a mass struggle for revolutionary change.