Calls have been made for the Scottish Government to urgently provide significant investment to local authorities to protect the “forgotten workforce” in schools.
In an open letter to Nicola Sturgeon, the GMB union has claimed those working as cleaners, caterers and janitors during lockdown are the “workforce that seems to have been forgotten.”
The letter describes how these workers have been “undervalued” and are being put into “unsafe situations” due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) being supplied to them.
The union said: “We do not feel safe at work and we are being put at risk every day.”
“Our employers are giving us the bare minimum PPE and many of us only have access to hand washing facilities.
“The guidance must be revised and must be more robust – now, not later.”
GMB also argues that a “decade of cuts” to cleaning budgets and staffing has led to workers being employed on multiple contracts, meaning they are moving between buildings throughout the day.
Helen Meldrum, a Dundee GMB Scotland trade union rep, is urging the government to recognise the work of those employed in these roles and provide them with better conditions to protect themselves and their families.
She said: “One of the things we’re are calling for is better, more meaningful contracts.
“You got lots of people, mostly women, who are on low paid and part-time contracts and because the often can’t get full time contracts.
“We are also talking about the support staff who are often temporary, part-time contracts and many don’t know if they will get them renewed.
“So you have these workers often having to use public transport to get to work and going to multiple buildings in a day. There is a potential to pass the virus around and it’s mind boggling.”
The union’s concerns come just days after education secretary John Swinney announced that schools across Scotland could be returning full time when the new term begins in August.
But the union fear this move could put those who work in schools at further risk unless they are provided with better protective equipment from local authorities.
We do not feel safe at work and we are being put at risk every day.”
GMB added: “Asking more and more people to return to schools without addressing our health and safety concerns puts us, the children and their families at risk.
“That is why we are writing to you to tell you that your government must urgently provide significant investment in local authorities to provide us with the things that we urgently need.”
Helen added: “For the people who have been at work in the schools (during lockdown), the PPE situation is really poor.
“These workers have been left behind. We want the maximum, not the minimum amount of PPE and for it to be based on the science, not the cost. ”
“The other day the Scottish Government announced that everyone in a health care setting would have to be wearing masks, and of course those people using public transport as well.
“So what we are saying is that these workers should be given these masks as well. Especially those in additional support needs schools, you’ve got workers who don’t have the appropriate PPE and are terrified about passing the virus on to vulnerable children.”
To ensure the safety of school employees when pupils return to classrooms, the union has drawn up a list of requests that they believe will help protect those on the frontline.
Included in the list is better PPE, investment in bereavement and mental health services, increased cleaning hours and a £2 an hour wage uplift.
An extra £100 million investment over the next two years to tackle the impact of lockdown on schools and pupils was announced earlier this week by the Scottish Government.
But Helen believes this funding is just a “drop in the ocean” compared to the level of investment that is needed to make a difference.
These workers have been left behind. We want the maximum, not the minimum amount of PPE and for it to be based on the science, not the cost.”
She said: “It’s not enough to help achieve what they want to do. Without this army of workers, schools wouldn’t be able to open.
“We had a look at the figures and the 100 million over two years works out, on average, around £20,000 per school which realistically won’t even pay for a newly qualified teacher.
“It needs much more investment. Offering these workers better and more meaningful contacts will make people feel valued after a decade of cuts.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Our hard-working school staff continue to provide an invaluable service in the hubs and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
“Everyone has a right to feel safe at work and we have been clear with local authorities that workers should have appropriate hygiene facilities and, where necessary, access to PPE and any wider support they need.
“The health and wellbeing of pupils and staff continues to be our priority as we plan for the safe re-opening of schools in August.
“The plan is conditional on infection rates being low enough to continue to suppress the virus, and appropriate public health and protective measures being in place.”