By Sarah Evans, PCS DVLA Swansea Branch Chair
Over the last 14 months, we have had 613 positive covid cases in the DVLA. We have had one death. These could have been avoided. Back in March last year, the DVLA worked with us to get numbers on site reduced to around 400 staff and non essential services scaled back to key workers only. This move was welcomed and supported by PCS. Then September came, and numbers onsite increased massively. We had the vulnerable staff coming back onsite, along with parents who has been off due to childcare, and that was also tied in to the usual spike of staff on site after the summer leave period.
We were notified of the 1st positive case on 7th September. Quite quickly that 1st case turned into the 2nd, the 10th and the numbers just kept increasing. By October we were meeting with the senior leaders of the DVLA and raising our concerns about the numbers on site. We were told that the numbers were fine, staff were to blame for the rise in cases. We didn’t accept that. We knew that there were too many people on site and that the only way to stop the cases rising was to reduce this number.
By the end of November the numbers were now in the hundreds. We had members in intensive care because they had become so ill. But still the DVLA would not admit or acknowledge that this was anything to do with them, this was all down to staff and their behaviour. When we started to see the cluster develop in the contact centre, we were again told that this is the fault of the staff there. They were typically younger and as such were all going drinking and catching it that way.
We were told that an increase a couple of weeks after Beaujolais day was to be accepted. During the first 2 weeks of December we saw over 60 positive cases in just over 2 weeks in the contact centre. Despite this, we were still being told that under no circumstances would they reduce the numbers, this was not to blame for the rise in cases.
It wasn’t long before the outbreak was declared, that onsite testing of all contact centre staff began. Despite this the DVLA still refused to move and take action. They would still not reduce the numbers on site despite us now pleading for this. They finally took some action, although this was some four days after the outbreak was declared, and decided to close their contact centre for the 4 days, it was meant to be open between Christmas and New year. It was the action that we had been asking for, but it was too little too late.
This is when we really had come to the end of the road of negotiations at a branch level and had to involve PCS at a national level.
We were dealing with an employer who had no interest in the safety of its staff. An employer whose leader had been onsite 6 times in 12 months, yet was telling staff that it was safe. A leader whose attendance on site was questioned by the select committee.
Throughout all our meetings, at every request to reduce numbers, we were always met with a list of what the DVLA had done to keep staff safe. How they had complied with all the recommendations made to them on inspections by EH, how they were ‘covid secure’ because they had the banners to support that claim.
Well I will put this to you all:
How can a Covid secure building see over 600 cases?
How can a Covid secure building see a member of staff lose their life from this awful virus?
How can a Covid secure building still be seeing cases, when the country is in a lockdown identical to what we saw 12 months ago, when there are now apparently all these safety measures in place?
The answer – they cant!
And this is the reason we were left with no option to declare us being in dispute with the Agency, and why we were forced to ballot our members.
A ballot that the Agency was pretty certain we would lose, and why wouldn’t they?
Over the last few years every ballot we have held over pay has not met the threshold. If people wont vote for more money, then why would they vote for this?
Why would the members working at home bother to vote? Well they voted.
They voted because they know that the DVLA cannot be trusted to keep their colleagues safe.
They voted because they hear the same stories as we do.
They voted for every staff member who has sat at their desk and cried because they were so scared.
But, most importantly, they voted because they care.
They know that they are fortunate to be able to work at home.
They know that they could be called back in at any time and that they would not want to work in a building that is not safe.
They voted despite knowing that if we called a strike, it would be the lowest paid amongst us that would lose pay.
This didn’t matter. Their safety matters. To me, to them, to us.
After the ballot result was declared, you would have expected the DfT senior leaders to ask to meet with us, but their ignorance was only demonstrated further.
It was us that had to reach out to them to ask them to enter intense talks with us.
It was pretty clear from a very early point, that we would not reach an agreement, that there is no acceptance that things have been handled incorrectly.
Even with 331 desks having to be taken out of use in Feb/March, because they were too close together and breaking social distancing, the blinkers were still on. So here we are today.
We had hundreds of members come out on strike. Members who have witnessed first hand the failures of the DVLA in keeping them safe. Members whose fears are so great they are willing to take a reduction in their pay to keep themselves safe.
We have just had a second week of strike action which saw even more members strike. But this isn’t the end.
We still have an employer who is refusing to move.
Despite both sets of strike action and notice served for a 3rd, they still drag their heels and if it was not for the efforts of PCS, they would not be holding the meetings to try and reach an agreement.
Due to incompetent hostile managers at the DVLA, staff have joined PCS, and joined the action in massive members, over 100 new members during one week alone.
PCS have made a commitment to pay members £40 a day in strike pay, and this has been processed quickly, leading to much praise from our members.
We also have a fighting fund to allow us to give a little extra support to those who need it the most. This has reached an incredible £38,000 and is growing.
Messages of support and solidarity are coming in from every part of the Trade Union movement and all areas of the country.
Whilst the DVLA may think they are big and strong, and can wait this out, they have underestimated the strength and passion of our members, and it really is a tale of David and Goliath.
All of your support and solidarity is welcome, in what is a crucial ballot for health and safety, and standing together, PCS is determined that it is one that we will win.