A union representing legal workers has expressed outrage at the “classist allocation of risk” that is seeing law firm partners work from home while other staff are forced into the office during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Legal Sector Workers Union (LSWU) – which represents qualified lawyers as well as a very wide range of other workers in the legal sector – also warned firms it would take action if staff were dismissed for leaving offices due to health concerns.
The union is part of United Voices of the World, which more broadly represents low-paid and predominantly migrant workers mainly in London’s outsourced industries.
It tweeted last night: “We have been forensically mapping law firms’ responses to COVID-19 across the legal sector. A shocking divide is evident: wealthy partners are working from home, while the lowest paid, most precarious staff are being forced to come into the office.
“This is an outrage. We are organising against this classist allocation of risk, which is an abuse of legal sector workers. If your bosses are sending you to work when you could be working from home, join LSWU without delay. We will support you immediately in making your demands.”
Earlier in the day it tweeted that one of its members, a trainee at a large legal aid firm, had walked out of a meeting that their employer was “trying to make them attend”. No sanction was imposed but the union said if members “reasonably decide to take your and other’s safety into your own hands, we’ll back you”.
Barrister Franck Magennis, currently seconded from Garden Court Chambers to United Voices of the World as its head of legal, added: “The pandemic is coming to a head in the legal sector. Managing partners at too many law firms are failing to act.
“As usual, it’s the most precarious workers who are leading the way. This is a health & safety issue. You have a right to walk off the job if conditions aren’t safe.”
In an open letter to employers in the legal sector, the LSWU demanded that all workers sent home, sick or not, must remain on full pay. “This includes any outsourced workers, as well as those on zero-hour contracts, including our cleaner and security colleagues.”
Further, all legal sector workers should be able and encouraged to work from home, it said.
It urged employers “to get ahead of the curve as this crisis unfolds”, adding: “We remind you that as per s.44(100)(1)(d) Employment Rights Act 1996, workers will be found to be automatically unfairly dismissed if the sole or principal reason for dismissal is because the worker left or proposed to leave work and refused to return because they felt being at work posed a serious and imminent danger to themselves which could not be reasonably averted.
“We will not hesitate to avail ourselves and our members of any and all legal remedies should they be subjected to any unlawful sanction in connection with their reasonable responses to the pandemic…
“By arriving at an agreed response, your business along with the legal sector as a whole will be in the best possible position to pressure the government in adopting a more comprehensive and responsible approach…
“We do not want to see our workplaces — your businesses — falter. Together we can overcome this emergency.”
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