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A recent Covid-19 outbreak in the East of England briefly focused attention on migrant workers who make up a significant number of staff on the factory floor at Banham Poultry. The company, which supplies chicken products to supermarkets, accounts for 7% of chicken processing in the UK and has been operating in Norfolk for over 50 years. It employs about 1,100 people, many of them European migrants.

But what happens to migrant workers in factories / areas where there has been an outbreak and they are told they must isolate? What support is available to workers often already in precarious and vulnerable working arrangements?

First, as reported elsewhere across the country, some people have had issues with testing and with receiving their test results. One Lithuanian woman in Great Yarmouth said she received three test results – one positive and two negatives. She phoned the local support agency, GYROS, to try to help her sort this out. GYROS acted quickly as the woman in question worked in one chicken factory, while her husband worked in a food processing factory.

Another worker, who was told to self-isolate, reported that she did not receive her test results and was now still (two weeks later) unable to return to work without her result. She wants to return to work, as her only income has been statutory sick pay (SSP) of £95 per week from (as opposed to approx. £300 per week when working).

She contacted 119 and was advised that if she has not had any symptoms in last two weeks then she can return to work, but her employers would not let her back. She tells us she was just able to make rent this month and is worried about next month.

This is a more general problem. For many already living pay-cheque to pay-cheque, just two weeks of significantly reduced income will put them on the back foot and into debt; others will accrue further debt to meet their costs.

We spoke to one family in Great Yarmouth who were in rent arrears before this and now being unable to work for two weeks whilst self-isolating is driving them deeper into debt.

Many were unsure about SSP – whether they qualified, how it works – as most had never had time off work for illness despite many years of work. We spoke to one worker who had worked in a food processing factory for 10 years and had never been on SPP in all that time nor missed a day’s work.

Others still will not qualify for SPP (such as agency workers), and this has meant that they have no access to income during the two weeks in which they have had to isolate.

Secondly, there is an issue of communication. Those who speak little or no English are faced with communications in English via email / text; many lack a smart phone or laptop in the home where they are isolating.

Others have reported that they are struggling to access two-way communication in order to liaise with their employer /employment agencies to clarify what they need to do once they receive their test results, when and how they can return to work.

These practical implications of isolation mean that emergency relief support is needed; for example, people need food parcels, as they are unable to leave their house. Although this support is in place, some workers we spoke to had not received any communication about how to access this parcel.

Others struggled to communicate with the food parcel provider, or waited over a week to receive it; while others were simply unaware of the existence of this support. Again, grassroots organisations such as GYROS needed to step in to support a number of vulnerable workers to access these parcels.

Many of those migrant workers we spoke to live in overcrowded, shared rented accommodation and HMOs (house of multiple occupation). The reality of isolation in shared housing with shared facilities such as kitchen, bathroom and laundry, is that isolation is all but impossible.

Confusion remains about how self-isolation works in these shared houses with individual tenants, and for local authorities, how to enforce restrictions.

The ‘key worker’ status of this group has meant that many continued to work throughout lockdown and shouldered much risk to their own, and to their family’s, health. They had a key role in supporting food chains during the pandemic.

We have previously reported that many workers we spoke to during lockdown felt unable to say ‘no’ to overtime or indeed to isolate when they needed to fearing they would lose their jobs.

“Yes, I have been asked to work on weekends and managers really insist that we do. There are more orders and we are expected to work at a faster pace than usual. As I work for work agency our work coordinators do insist, we need to come to work. People are worried to say no to overtime as this might mean that there will be no hours offered.”

(Lithuanian national, poultry factory, April 2020).

As we head into the winter months, daily reported cases of Covid-19 are rising and we are told we are now in a second wave, these localised outbreaks provide key insights into the reality of isolation in the aftermath of an outbreak especially around testing, communication, provision of practical support, and income deprivation.

Moving forward, the government plan to introduce much stricter enforcement of isolation introducing new fines (£1,000-£10,000) for any breaches alongside further support for those who must isolate.

The new government support and enforce package means that from 28 September, people on lower incomes will be supported by a payment of £500 if they cannot work from home and have lost income as a result.

This payment will be welcomed by those who need to isolate after this date, but will not be backdated to workers already isolating and who have lost income.

By Professor Catherine Barnard, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe and Fiona Costello, research associate, University of Cambridge.

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