Geoff Willetts, NEC reports on the TUC Disabled Workers Conference

This year’s annual TUC Disabled Workers Conference was held over two days at Bournemouth International Conference centre and consisted of 21 motions with two emergency motions, and nominations for black members, LGBT+, and women members.

Guest speakers, Vicky Foxcroft, MP Labour shadow minister for disabled people and Paul Nowak TUC General Secretary, touched on a wide range of topics from neurodiversity, equality, extra support for disabled people and daily problems that might occur in the workplace.

The British Sign Language signers played a vital part in relaying the speeches and debated to deaf delegates, while subtitled screens and a hearing loop system were also available. Other adjustments were in place for other disabled delegates to aid their participation in this year’s conference.

Jackie Marshall, NEC, spoke on behalf of the POA and told conference about our frontline staff – the forgotten heroes of the pandemic. She told the conference delegates how frontline prison staff looked after sick prisoners, (something they’re not trained to do); how they kept prisoners apart, (something they’re not trained to do), and the fantastic job that POA members did to keep prisoners alive and well while dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on their families, friends and colleagues.

She magnified the sacrifice our members made on a daily basis, not to mention the mental health, emotional and relationship costs at the expense of keeping their families safe from the trauma from the killer Covid virus.

Conference delegates were shocked to hear that some prison staff were living in tents, garages, caravans and camper vans on prison car parks during the pandemic. They were told how Center Parcs opened its accommodation for prison staff who did not want to go home for fear of spreading the virus. And they were flabbergasted to hear that prisoners were prioritised for the Covid vaccinations before frontline prison staff.

The delegates were stunned to hear that our employer does not recognise long Covid and that POA members were being dismissed for not being able to give full and effective service.

There was an expectation that frontline staff remain at work during the pandemic as our members cannot withdraw their labour en masse and because of a permanent injunction, we cannot remove our labour, incite staff to take industrial action or work to rule as we run the risk of being taken to court and jailed.

The POA agreed with other unions that the TUC must campaign to convince the government to recognise long Covid as a disability and for it to be incorporated into the Equality Act 2010.

Jackie’s speech was halted half-way through because of the deafening applause from delegates who were sympathetic to hearing about the POA members’ uphill battle and sacrifice during the global pandemic.

We are proud of our members and recognise the tough environment, the hard working conditions and we will not forget our ‘heroes’.

Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.