The DVLA Strike Shows What Trade Unionism Looks Like Under Covid-19

Taj Ali

Staff at the DVLA's Swansea centre have been out on strike after weak workplace safety led to an outbreak of more than 600 Covid-19 cases – and with the government taking a hard line, the dispute is set to continue.

Credit: PCS DVLA Branch

Since April, staff at the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) contact centre in Swansea have been taking action over Covid safety in their workplace in a series of strikes. The dispute was raised after 600 staff members tested positive for Covid, and one person tragically died.

‘In September 2020, when staff were called back into the office [after lockdown], we quickly went from having about 400-500 people attending three sites to around 2,000 people attending the office every day,’ explains Sarah Evans, a staff member at DVLA for the past six years. ‘Very quickly, we saw our first positive case within the agency, and it just escalated. One case became two, which became twenty, and before we knew it, we were in December and an outbreak had been declared in the contact centre.’

Staff voted to strike with PCS in March, and after eight days of strike action over a two-month period, the union and senior management were about to finalise a deal—many of the details of which were at the suggestion of the employer—but it was taken off the table without explanation at the final hour. As a result, the dispute looks set to continue.

The Outbreak

Mac, a DVLA staff member and trade union rep, says that the strike has been a long time coming. ‘We’ve had months and months of neglect and inaction from the bosses,’ he says. ‘Concerns surrounding safety have not been taken seriously. There was no social distancing. The office was be cramped. Some individual managers took it upon themselves to turn off the test and trace app.’

Mac adds that he knew people in the office had tested positive for Covid. ‘By the end of winter, we had over 500 infections and the death of a colleague, which was disgraceful. We can’t let this happen again.’

The DVLA claims it has followed Welsh government guidelines regarding Covid safety, but Phil, another staff member, believes workers were deliberately kept out of the loop regarding the number of positive cases at the site.

‘We found out in December that from 21 September to around 20 December, there had been 61 Covid cases in the contact centre alone,’ he says. ‘That really frightened people. If you took the number of people and the number of cases, the cases per 1,000 at the DVLA were ten times the community rate. But we kept being told it was fine, it was safe, it was Covid-secure.’ New Covid cases were reportedly recorded at the site just last week.

Inadequate Protection

Phil adds that the limited transmission control measures implemented were woefully inadequate. ‘The virus is spread through aerial transmission, and the DVLA doesn’t seem happy to accept that. A little flimsy screen between me and a guy on the next desk is not enough.’

‘We’ve got nine lifts in our 16-storey building which are used by about 100 people on each floor,’ Sarah says. ‘The lifts are cleaned about three times a day. When you’ve got that much traffic pushing the button for the lift, it’s quite easy to see how the virus is spread.’

Sarah also says that over 300 desks had to be removed from the site in February after the centre was found to be breaching the two-metre social distance guidelines.

‘All these months they were telling us that we were safe, that our desks were two metres apart, and we were telling them that they weren’t. It took a visit from environmental health, who made measurements themselves, to discover that 331 desks were not adequately distanced. That’s an absolutely massive failure on their part.’

As a result of these failures, combined with his age and underlying health conditions, Phil was forced to refuse to work.

‘I didn’t have to isolate, but I was an ‘at risk’ individual,’ he explains. ‘Initially, when I said I wasn’t coming in in early January, they wanted to put me down as sick. I told them I wasn’t sick – that’s the whole point. I just didn’t want to end up sick as a result of work. I’m 68, and I just thought, “This is ridiculous. Why am I putting my life at risk?” I didn’t want to die.’

Safety at Home

Sarah explains that the one staff member who passed away from Covid was over 60 and had a pre-existing heart condition, and as such, could have been working from home.

‘His wife has said that, aside from work, the only other place he went would be the petrol station to put petrol in the car, so much was his fear of Covid,’ she says. ‘It’s just heart-breaking.’ Mac adds that one colleague was shielding at home to protect their father, who had end-stage cancer, but was still made to come into work.

Some workers allege that the DVLA could have allowed workers to work from home but prevented them in doing so – and that there are questions of hierarchy at play. ‘We’ve always been fighting for more working from home,’ Sarah explains. ‘It seems to be the senior grades working from home and the lower operational grades have always been the ones that have had to attend the site. We’ve kept asking for it.’

She adds that in one meeting, management told staff that the main reason the operational lower grades could not work from home was because there was no supervision – indicating that they could not be trusted to do their jobs from home.

‘If they don’t trust you at home, why would they trust you in the office?’ asks Phil. ‘You’re not under constant supervision in the office. No one’s monitoring what you’re doing all the time.’

According to Mac, the DVLA also claimed their staff’s work was ‘too sensitive’ to be done from home. ‘But other government departments such as HMRC had no problem working from home,’ he points out. ‘They deal with very sensitive work – even more sensitive, compared to the DVLA. It just doesn’t make sense. They’re making excuses.’

Fight Back

Being forced to come into an unsafe office without reason has caused a great deal of fear and anxiety, Sarah says.

‘The staff are scared. They are really, really scared,’ she explains. ‘I get emails daily from people who are sat at their desk crying, sometimes because of the work that they’re being asked to do – some people are being made to go into the office purely to open envelopes with older driving licences that need to be destroyed. That is a meaningless task. You’re putting people at risk to do something that could be done 12, 15, 24 months down the line.’

On top of Covid safety, the workload has also been a cause for concern given the vast backlog of cases staff are having to deal with.

‘We’ve got staff in the contact centre who are literally working to 99 or 100% occupancy, which means they aren’t getting a single break in between calls,’ explains Sarah. ‘It’s constant from the moment they start and the moment they finish. Management aren’t willing to do anything to resolve that.’ Mac agrees, adding that people are ‘burned out’.

Despite that burnout, striking staff members are remaining strong in the face of management’s stubbornness. Over 500 workers struck from the contact centre last week in action that finished on Saturday 12 June – but with the agreement withdrawn, allegedly at the direction of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in a demonstration of the government’s ideological opposition to trade union action, the dispute looks set to continue in the months to come.

‘We’ve come together as workers and it’s been fantastic to know that everybody supports each other – particularly since this has gone on this long,’ says Sarah. ‘The support is still coming in from literally across the country, and it’s quite phenomenal to know that there’s still so much energy. The union is still resolute, and the workers are still determined to get a better deal.’

The nationwide support for the DVLA strikers is evidence that this dispute is not just a fight for one workplace in Swansea. After 15 months of Covid, it’s a fight to protect the health and safety of all workers – and to ensure that lives are never put at risk again.