around the world

Bolsonaro tests positive for coronavirus
Tomas Castanheira, WSWS, Jul 8 2020

image-2Bolsonaro with Pindo Ambassador Todd Chapman on Jul 4.

Brazil’s fascist President Jair Bolsonaro announced yesterday morning to a group of reporters that he tested positive for the new coronavirus, after first presenting symptoms on Sunday. The COVID-19 pandemic has already reached catastrophic dimensions in Brazil, with more than 1.6m infected and 66k dead, according to the official count. This toll is surpassed internationally only by Pindostan. The impact of the virus continues to expand, with a weekly average of about 37k new cases per day. Amid this scenario, Bolsonaro used his interview, watched by millions of Brazilians and an international audience, to reaffirm his criminal message on behalf of the entire Brazilian ruling class:

Life goes on! Brazil has to produce! We have to activate the economy!

Bolsonaro reminded everyone that, at first, he was attacked by his political rivals for his sociopathic perspective. He said in direct reference to a phrase by Wilson Witzel, governor of Rio de Janeiro:

Some people talked in the past, criticizing me, that the economy recovers, life doesn’t. The guns were all pointed at me, criticizing me very harshly. We suffered a lot, but now you can all see that we were right.

The positions that Bolsonaro claims have been substantiated are actually a set of unscientific assertions about the nature of the coronavirus and policies in response to the pandemic that have proven completely false and of terrible consequence. The fascist president’s main argument is that the virus is like a “rain” that will inevitably fall on everyone. But, he claimed, the dangers of the disease, which has already killed more than half a million people worldwide, would pose no serious risk to the population. According to him, COVID-19 was “overestimated” and “the vast majority of the population, once infected, doesn’t even take notice, feels absolutely nothing.” He also said that the virus would behave completely differently in the Brazil’s hot climate, making its effects much milder. The explosion of cases before the winter and with devastating consequences in the warmer states, in the north and north-east, absolutely refuted these assumptions, which had no objective foundation from the beginning. Bolsonaro contends, against all scientific evidence, that HCQ is an effective treatment for COVID-19, saying:

Doctors have been saying all over Brazil that the chance of success of HCQ reaches 100%. I took the first pill yesterday. I confess that if I had taken HCQ from the first day, preventively, I would have been doing very well, without any trace of reaction.

In reality, not only did the WHO abandon studies of the drug for treatment of COVID-19 due to its inefficiency, but two Brazilian health ministers left office because of their differences over the indiscriminate prescription of the drug advocated by the president. Bolsonaro reaffirmed his denunciation of social-distancing measures as a means of spreading panic among the population, attacking governors who proposed measures such as restricting access to beaches. He defended the reopening of schools and so-called “vertical isolation,” isolating only the elderly and people with comorbidities. He defended his practice of “contact with the people, which has been quite intense in recent months,” that is, his participation in the fascist demonstrations in front of the Government Palace, advocating the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court and military intervention.

How much the devastating results of the coronavirus in Brazil can be attributed to Bolsonaro’s actions is hard to estimate. His combination of official decrees preventing measures of social distancing and forcing the opening of many businesses, dissemination of false information, covering up data and the extra-governmental mobilization of openly fascist forces to break the quarantines and even invade hospitals, played a substantial role. However, his stability in power and open defense of criminal policies would not have been possible without the collaboration of the entire Brazilian political establishment. If, from the scientific point of view, the policies promoted by Bolsonaro were exposed as a farce, from the point of view of the profit interests of the ruling class, they were completely substantiated. All parties, including the self-declared opposition of the Workers’ Party (PT), embraced the criminal measures of Bolsonaro and are unanimous in promoting the reopening of all economic activities in the country, despite all medical and scientific recommendations, but as Bolsonaro recalled in his interview, his greatest support comes from the fact that all bourgeois governments around the world are defending his fundamental policy for general contamination of the population, justified in the name of a “herd immunity” that lacks any basis in science. And they all have embraced what he said long ago:

One cannot fight the virus when the collateral effect of this fight is worse than the damage caused by the virus itself.

Just days before Bolsonaro’s announcement that he had contracted COVID-19, he attended a Jul 4 celebration at the Pindo Embassy, where neither masks nor social distancing were in evidence. Pindo Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman and his wife have “tested negative and will remain at home in quarantine,” according to the embassy’s official Twitter account, which added that the embassy’s entire staff is being “evaluated.” The episode recalls the visit by Bolsonaro to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Florida resort in early March, when 23 members of his entourage returned testing positive for the coronavirus. Bolsonaro previously concealed his own test results, which he performed under pseudonyms. The virus has increasingly infected Trump’s own inner circle, with eight members of his staff testing positive after his Tulsa rally, as well as a senior aide to Pence and the girlfriend of his son Don Jr.

Peru lifts quarantine restrictions as coronavirus infections pass 300k mark
Cesar Uco, WSWS, Jul 8 2020

Families wait in a line for a free meal in Lima, Jun 17 2020. Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP

On Jul 1, Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra initiated the third phase of a “targeted quarantine” to fight the COVID-19 epidemic. While the blanket quarantine has been lifted, including on Sundays, a 10 pm to 5 am curfew remains in effect. The new measures are called “targeted” because the quarantine remains in force in regions considered to be at high risk, while certain restrictions are continuing in Lima’s working-class neighborhoods. As of Jul 6, the Ministry of Health had confirmed 302,718 infections and 10,589 deaths. The per capita death toll is huge. It represents half the number of fatalities reported by India, which has 42 times the population of Peru. It is also reported that of Peru’s 11,302 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 1,227 are in intensive care on mechanical ventilators. In South America, Peru trails only Brazil in number of deaths, but ranks first in terms of fatalities per capita. This week Peru jumped to fifth place among the countries with the highest number of coronavirus infections. Vizcarra is acting against the advice of many health experts, who have condemned lifting the quarantine as premature under conditions in which roughly 3k new infections are being reported daily and deaths continue to rise.

As a result of implementing the third phase of “targeted quarantine,” most businesses are now allowed to open their doors and most Peruvians can move freely, with certain exceptions in regions where the pandemic is growing, such as Arequipa, Ica, Junín, Huánuco, San Martín, Madre de Dios and Ancash. In addition, people over 65 years of age are not allowed to leave their homes at any time. Another restriction is that young people, 14 and under, can go out for only half an hour and only 500 m away from their homes. The newspaper El Comercio reports that the capital’s 19 high-risk districts, where it is recommended that young people under 14 years of age not be allowed to go out, coincide with the most populated and poorest of Lima’s 43 districts, with an estimated population of over 6m. In short, the government is making a distinction, giving full freedom to capitalist interests and limited freedom to working-class neighborhoods. More than 50% of those infected reside in Lima. With 10m inhabitants, the capital comprises roughly a third of Peru’s population and consists predominantly of workers, the poor and immigrants who have poured in from every region of the country in search of better living standards. Sunday, the first day of “targeted quarantine,” saw a record number taking to the streets, most of them ignoring social distancing rules. El Correo reports:

Markets, emporiums, malls and the beach registered a great agglomeration of people, despite the contagion and the recommendations of the Minsa.

Measures banning large number of people gathering in the streets have been enforced mainly against workers, who are suffering the most from the pandemic, unable to feed their families and pay rent and utilities. The Vizcarra government executed more than 1k arrests in the first two days of phase three, all of them in working-class neighborhoods. To date, there have been 52k arrests for violations of government rules imposed to counter the spread of the coronavirus. In terms of economic stagnation, the Ministry of Labor estimates that 1.2m jobs were lost between February and May. But the daily Correo speaks of 3.2m people losing their jobs. The Peruvian central bank has estimated that the economy will contract by 12.5% this year. The implementation of the “targeted quarantine” turned chaotic in Lima, with long lines of people waiting for buses, as a condition for resuming public transportation is that no-one should travel standing. At rush hour the buses are usually crowded with more people standing than sitting, packed like sardines.

A transport strike scheduled for Thursday was suspended at the last minute by Ricardo Pareja, representative of the Urban Transport Chamber. The drivers had expressed their disagreement with the government’s measures. The public transport union of Lima and Callao staged a stoppage last week demanding economic compensation. With the initiation of the “targeted quarantine,” skirmishes with police forces took place in the popular markets of Mesa Redonda and La Parada. To enter these markets, vendors must show a permit that they have complied with the hygiene rules imposed by the Minsa. But in a country where three-quarters of the workers and markets like Mesa Redonda and La Parada are part of the informal sector, there were a high number of small vendors without permits who were forcibly ejected by the police. Later, the same vendors would look for another way to enter the marketplace, arguing that “we also have to feed our families,” before being evicted again. These confrontations quickly gave way to police abuse. El Comercio reports:

A member of the Peruvian National Police slapped an alleged criminal twice during his interrogation at a police station in the district of El Agustino.

A video of the interrogation began to circulate on social media, sparking outrage over police violence. While anger is growing in the working class over unemployment, social inequality and state repression, Peru’s ruling capitalist oligarchy is dissatisfied with the pace of the economic reopening. Speaking on behalf of big business, economist Elena Conterno, president of the Peruvian Institute of Entrepreneurial Action, accused the government of hindering the normalization of economic activity. Writing in El Comercio she declared:

We cannot tolerate the cumbersome process through which companies have to go to get authorization for activating operations. This is because the firms have to present a protocol to the Health Ministry and a second one to the ministry in charge of their activities.

With many health experts expressing their opposition to lifting the quarantine, the IPAE declares the capitalist ruling elite’s contempt for human life, which boils down to the insistence that profit is more important than the lives of workers. This position was made clearer by Ricardo Márquez, president of the National Society of Industries (SNI), when he declared:

If the factory is in San Juan de Lurigancho, they tell you that you cannot operate because it is located in one of the districts with the most cases of coronavirus.

San Juan de Lurigancho is one of the largest poor working-class districts with over 1m inhabitants. His argument is that it is in an industrial zone and the fact that there is a high concentration of exposure to COVID-19 is inconsequential. Meanwhile the crisis in the health-care sector has reached alarming levels, with reports from all corners of the country calling for more equipment as well as showing high rates of infections and deaths among doctors, nurses and other health sector personnel. What has been exposed is the lack of preparation of the state in regard to the health of the majority of the population. This is a result of the policies dictated by the IMF and applauded by Latin American governments for cutting health care budgets in favor of encouraging the extractive sectors—mining for export, which benefit world capital and its junior partners in the Latin American bourgeoisie. Given the alarming statistics of new infections and deaths, it is clear that President Vizcarra is a puppet of the Peruvian ruling class, which is looking with envy at how the capitalists in other countries are returning to “normality” at the expense of workers’ lives and health. A genuine struggle to defeat the pandemic, as well as the attacks of the bourgeoisie and its president, Vizcarra, can be begin only by the Peruvian working class forming rank-and-file committees in factories, mines and neighborhoods, independent of the unions and the so-called bourgeois left. Using social media and the internet these committees must fight to coordinate joint action with workers of the region and globally in a common struggle for socialism.

South Africa sees surge in COVID-19 as restrictions lifted
Stephan McCoy, WSWS, Jul 8 2020

A pupil’s temperature is checked on returning to school in Johannesburg
on July 7, 2020 (Photo: Denis Farrell/AP)

The lifting of the lockdown and social distancing measures has caused a surge of coronavirus infections in South Africa. The total number of cases is now approaching 210k and the number of deaths is over 3.3k. This makes South Africa the country with the second highest number of deaths, behind Egypt, and the largest number of cases on the continent. The numbers are expected to peak in July and August, particularly in Gauteng, the country’s industrial hub—where the sharp increases in cases could overwhelm the province’s health system—as well as the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces. Health experts have warned that deaths from COVID-19 could reach from 40k to more than 70k deaths before the end of the year. The surge follows the government’s reopening of the economy in May, as South Africa’s economy teeters on the brink. The pandemic has worsened the already high rate of unemployment and drastically increased hunger. Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, speaking of the devastating impact of these numbers, said:

We’re seeing a spike in infections in Johannesburg. The number of people that we are diagnosing on a daily basis now is absolutely frightening. Who we are finding positive now is an indication of who will be in hospital three weeks from now.

Despite the surge in cases, President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that the ANC government does not intend to reinstate a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the virus. Ramaphosa told Business Insider:

Another hard lockdown is not being considered for now. The issue of jobs lost concerns us. Other countries are experiencing even bigger losses. We are developing various other ways of responding to this.

By this, he means social distancing and mask-wearing. Bandile Masuku, the health minister in Gauteng province, which has the highest number of active cases and 44% of all the cases in the country, called for restrictions on the number of people at gatherings and on public transport, including taxis, but he stressed:

We wouldn’t want to return to hard lockdown because of the implications it has for the economy. What we are putting across is that we also have to get into the second phase with proper insight, because we’ve got experience with the previous lockdown.

Following the lifting of the lockdown, the Western Cape also saw a spike in infections, resulting in it becoming the epicentre of South Africa’s epidemic. In the most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods in Cape Town such as Khayelitsha and Klipfontein, the infection rates and possible mortality rates are starting to rival some of the worst-hit parts of the world. Epidemiologist Professor Andrew Boulle, from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Research, said He told Independent Online:

The Klipfontein health subdistrict, with a population of 3.6m people and 6,316 confirmed cases, already has a mortality rate of about 700 per million people. In Khayelitsha it was 500 per million. If the Western Cape was a country and was compared to other countries, at this point in time globally we might be one of the countries with the highest currently daily mortality rate per million population in the world.

He warned that the pandemic had not yet peaked. The government is spearheading its back-to-work campaign with the reopening of schools. Forced to delay its original plans to reopen fully in June due to teachers’ opposition, the government has said that schools will be fully open by August. In Gauteng province, at least 589 schools recorded positive cases of the coronavirus before the second phase of the reopening began, and 71 have had to close. In KwaBhaca in the Eastern Cape, 200 students tested positive at Makaula Senior Secondary School. The reopening is happening even as hospitals near collapse due to the growing number of cases. Siviwe Gwarube, a Democratic Alliance MP and Shadow Minister of Health, has called for the Eastern Cape be placed under administration, as the local government cannot “fulfil its constitutional obligations of providing adequate health-care to all in the province.” ICU beds are filling up nationally. Times Select reports:

South Africa needs more than 7k additional critical beds, with a combination of oxygen, non-invasive and invasive ventilators.

In Netcare Linksfield Hospital in Eastern Johannesburg, 15 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 according to a nurse, who said many nurses were worried because deep cleaning had not taken place at the facility and, while they were in isolation, the hospital used agency nurses to run the ICU. Another nurse told News24:

They even suggested that, since we tested positive, if we don’t see symptoms in the next seven days, then we are good to come back to work.

This flies in the face of government recommendations. The nurse said the hospital’s primary concern was money, not the pandemic and that nurses were calling for the hospital to allow affected colleagues to retest before returning to work after 14 days.

South Africa’s economy, which was already in recession before the pandemic with an official unemployment rate of more than 30%, contracted by 2% in Q1 2020 compared with the previous quarter, due to a downturn in mining and manufacturing, two pillars of the economy, and a 20% reduction in capital investment. GDP per capita has been declining since 2013. South Africa’s debts were downgraded to junk bond status in March. Economy Minister Tito Mboweni is expecting a contraction of more than 7% for the year as a whole, the biggest downturn since the 1930s, and a budget deficit of nearly 16% of GDP, double earlier estimates. He warned that the country was on the path of bankruptcy, like Argentina. He pledged that he will slash public sector jobs and wages and increase taxes, to find $13.5b of spending cuts in the next two years and close the budget deficit by 2024.

The government’s attempts to impose the full burden of the mounting economic crisis on the working class are being met with rising opposition. There have been numerous strikes and walk-outs by transport and health-care workers over safety issues and the lack of PPE. In the Eastern Cape, municipal workers at Port Elizabeth protested outside a council meeting demanding permanent employment because, as outsourced workers, they are being paid less than those on the city’s payroll. The workers, who include meter guards, meter readers and seasonal workers, were met with stun grenades from the police. The ANC government’s response is to abrogate democratic rights and turn to dictatorship, using the army to help police enforce restrictions, along with forces under the South African Military Health Service deployed as medical personnel. Ramaphosa has told parliament he is extending the deployment until Sep 30 of 20k soldiers, a reduction from the 76k deployed in April, to enforce coronavirus restrictions. He said:

The army will work in cooperation with the police to maintain law and order, support other state departments, and control the country’s border line to combat the disease.

Limited lockdown imposed in Melbourne as COVID-19 surges in Australia
Oscar Grenfell, WSWS, Jul 8 2020

Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday announced the reintroduction of a partial lockdown across Melbourne, the state’s most populous city, as a surge in coronavirus cases threatened to “spiral out of control.” The move was taken only after several weeks of growing infections. There were 191 confirmed cases across the state, the vast majority of them in Melbourne, in the 24 hours to yesterday morning. This was the highest daily tally for Victoria since the pandemic began. Indicating widespread community transmission, health authorities said 37 of yesterday’s cases were linked to “known clusters.” Another 154 infections were “under investigation,” so the source of transmission was unknown. A further 134 new cases were revealed today. The vast majority, 123, were the result of the untraced spread of the virus.

The spike is an indictment of the state, territory and federal governments. Under the umbrella of the “national cabinet,” they have overturned most lockdown measures over the past six weeks. This has been aimed at forcing a full return of the workforce to places of employment to ensure the resumption of corporate profit-making. In Victoria, as in other states, this criminally-negligent policy has involved the complete resumption of face-to-face teaching in the schools, the reopening of cafes and restaurants and a relaxation of limits on gatherings. Governments had declared that “reopening the economy” would result in increased infections. They claimed, however, that these could be “contained” through localised lockdowns, along with increased testing and contact tracing measures. The experiences of the past fortnight have decisively refuted these assertions and revealed the immense dangers posed by the premature lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. This has confirmed the warning made by the SEP in a Jun 3 statement:

Via decrees agreed by the so-called national cabinet, Liberal-National and Labor governments alike are gambling with the lives of the population. They are announcing accelerated ‘reopening’ measures almost daily. In their haste, they are sweeping aside previous timetables, long before the impact of the earlier lifting of restrictions has been revealed.

After a week and a half of growing cases, Andrews announced the introduction of lockdown measures in ten postcodes in northern and western Melbourne on Jul 1. As infections continued to rise, the inner-city suburbs of Flemington and North Melbourne were added to the list on Saturday. Under the localised lockdown, residents were instructed they could only leave their homes for work, study, medical treatment or exercise. Saturday’s announcement included a punitive, police enforced order imposed upon 3k residents in 9 inner-city public housing towers, forbidding them from leaving their cramped flats for any reason whatsoever. The local restrictions have failed to halt the spread of the virus. As many as half of the active cases over the past week have been in areas that were not subject to the restrictions. Only when new daily case numbers hit triple figures did Andrews move to impose lockdown measures across Melbourne. The decision came as epidemiologists warned of an imminent danger of an exponential growth in infections. Professor Robery Booy, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Sydney, told Nine Media that without city-wide restrictions, the number of daily cases in Victoria could have reached 3k by the end of July.

As with the measures introduced when the pandemic began in March, the Melbourne lockdown is aimed at ensuring minimum disruption to big business. While leaving homes is permitted for “essential” activities, this includes work and study. Factories, warehouses, construction sites and other workplaces that pose a risk of mass transmission are permitted to continue their operations. Schools are set to resume classroom teaching when term three begins next week. Andrews yesterday stated that schools would be partly “pupil-free” during the first week of teaching. Year 11 and 12 students and year 10 VCE will return to class on Monday. All students in specialist schools will be taught face-to-face. Teachers of these cohorts will be forced into classrooms despite the surge in infections. Those who cover other classes will be required to go to school to “prepare for a possible move to remote and flexible learning” and to care for the children of essential workers. The state government has not ruled out a complete resumption of classroom teaching on Jul 20.

The lockdown does not apply to regional and rural areas. This is despite evidence of transmission throughout the state, including two confirmed positive cases in Albury-Wodonga on the New South Wales-Victoria state border. Extensive commentary in the media has focused on the role of failed hotel quarantines in the recent rise in infections. The Victorian government revealed last week that many outbreaks had been traced to security guards tasked with overseeing returned travellers in hotel quarantines. The debacle has highlighted the bankrupt character of the pro-business response to the pandemic. Low-paid private security guards with virtually no training were placed on one of the front lines of an unprecedented health emergency. The corporate media outlets have remained largely silent on the fact that the spike is the direct result of the “reopening” agenda that they supported.

Schools and workplaces have emerged as centres of infection. Over the past fortnight, five infections have been reported at Coles’ Laverton warehouse. On the weekend, one worker tested positive at the Pacific Meat abattoir in Thomastown and another at the JBS meatworks in Brooklyn. Cases have been reported among McDonald’s fast-food workers, retail shop staff, Bunnings hardware store employees and Woolworths supermarkets. Dozens of separate schools have been affected, contradicting government and media claims they were unlikely to be places of transmission. Over the past three weeks, more than 33 schools and a dozen kindergartens have been closed temporarily across Melbourne after students and educators tested positive to COVID-19. At the Al-Taqwa College in the city’s outer-west, 90 teachers and pupils have contracted the virus, forcing the entire student cohort of 2k, along with 300 staff members, into quarantine.

Indicating the extent of the crisis, the virus is again spreading through the health-care system. More than 15 medical professionals in Melbourne have tested positive over the past week, including nine doctors and nurses at Northern Hospital in Epping and at least one doctor at St Vincent’s hospital. 41 patients with COVID-19 have been hospitalised. Nine people are in intensive care, a four-fold increase over the past week. At a press conference this afternoon, PM Scott Morrison insisted that the spike in Victoria would not halt the “national plan to reopen the economy.” State and territory leaders are pressing ahead with lifting restrictions, despite an appeal by the Australian Medical Association at the beginning of the week for a “freeze” on overturning the limited lockdown measures that remain. Today’s Australian Financial Review editorial spelt out the calculations of the ruling elite. It forecast ongoing outbreaks, saying these would need to be met with “draconian” measures in affected areas, enforced by the police and the military, and declared:

The price of clearing a path out of job- and business-killing lockdowns is to clamp down on new disease outbreaks without hesitation.

The editorial was in line with the rejection by governments of any strategy to eradicate the coronavirus entirely. It is also another warning of a turn to police-state measures. Already, 500 police officers are enforcing the brutal lockdown of 3k public housing residents in Melbourne. Hundreds more are policing yesterday’s closure of the New South Wales-Victoria border, while at least 300 soldiers are involved in the lockdown of Melbourne. The use of the military and the police is establishing a precedent for their mobilisation to suppress the social and political struggles of the working class which are emerging in response to the corporate-driven official response to the pandemic and the onslaught against workers’ jobs, wages and conditions that is accompanying it.

Coronavirus exposes Leicester’s sweatshops and government hypocrisy
Thomas Scripps, WSWS, Jul 8 2020

The lockdown imposed on the East Midlands city of Leicester after an outbreak of COVID-19 has been linked to garment factory sweat-shops. This has forced government ministers to strike a pose of outrage at a situation they have not only ignored for years, but also intend to replicate across the country. Last Wednesday, the day after a local public health lockdown of Leicester was ordered by the Boris Johnson government, campaign group Labour Behind the Label published a report, “Boohoo & COVID-19: The people behind the profit.” The group has been informed of multiple Leicester factories where no social distancing has been implemented and no masks have been provided. Workers were told to come into work while sick or be sacked. In several factories of up to 100 people, workers were forced to carry on working while known to be infected with coronavirus or while living in households known to be infected. Factories continued running as normal throughout the national lockdown. On Sunday, the Times published an undercover investigation carried out earlier that week, while Leicester was formally under local lockdown. Their reporter spent two days working at a garment factory, where he was told by another worker to expect to be paid between £3.50 and £4 an hour. A foreman explained:

Anywhere in Leicester you will only find textile factories that pay up to £4 an hour.

This is less than half of the already pitifully low national minimum wage. There were no gloves, health warning signs or social distancing measures and only a few workers wore masks. Health Sec Matt Hancock and Home Sec Priti Patel feigned surprise. Hancock told Sky News:

There are some quite significant concerns about some of the employment practices in some of the clothing factories in Leicester. We have the authority to shut down businesses if they don’t follow the guidance. We’re not just asking nicely, we’re very clear to businesses that these are their responsibilities.

Patel outdid herself in a customary display of cynicism, referring to the “abhorrent practices” uncovered by the Times report and declaring, “These allegations are truly appalling.” She directed the National Crime Agency to investigate “modern slavery” in Leicester’s clothes factories and said in Parliament:

I will not tolerate sick criminals forcing innocent people into slave labour and a life of exploitation. Let this be a warning to those who are exploiting people in sweatshops like these for their own commercial gain. This is just the start. What you are doing is illegal, it will not be tolerated and we are coming after you.

This is like Al Capone threatening to clean up the Mafia. The Tories and the entire ruling class have knowingly presided over Leicester’s sweatshops for years. In 2015, the Ethical Trading Initiative commissioned research by the University of Leicester into the city’s garment industry. New Industry on a Skewed Playing Field: Supply Chain Relations and Working Conditions in UK Garment Manufacturing reported:

The majority of garment workers are paid way below the National Minimum Wage, do not have employment contracts, and are subject to intense and arbitrary work practices. We found work practices that result in health problems, inadequate health and safety standards.

This research was presented to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, who then produced a report which stated:

Labour rights abuses are endemic in the Leicester garment industry.

In Jan 2017, Channel 4 Dispatches produced Undercover: Britain’s Cheap Clothes. A reporter worked at three Leicester factories producing clothes for brands like River Island, New Look, Boohoo and Misguided. He was paid between £3/hr and £3.50/hr. In one factory, the fire exits were blocked and a worker was smoking on the factory floor. A Financial Times investigation in 2018, Dark factories: Labour exploitation in Britain’s garment industry found average wages of £4.25/hr and significant fire safety hazards. The reporter explained:

The enforcement agencies can hardly claim to be unaware of what is happening. Representatives from UK Visas and Immigration, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority all attended a meeting hosted by Leicester mayor Sir Peter Soulsby last October, where the problems were discussed in detail. But a comb-through of freedom of information requests, MPs’ questions and public records does not reveal a state that has done much to sort this out.

In 2019, the government rejected every recommendation by the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability, which noted:

We were told it is an open secret that some garment factories in places like Leicester are not paying the minimum wage.

This January, Tory MP for North-West Leicestershire Andrew Bridgen raised the “miserable conditions” in Leicester’s factories and requested a meeting with the business secretary. In April, Conservative politicians led by Baroness Verma sent an email to Leicester’s Labour councillors and mayor, raising concerns about factories operating illegally and asking if the Labour Party was reporting these activities to the police and trading standards. Neither the Tory government nor the Labour Party has lifted a finger to address this criminal exploitation. HMRC announced in January that in the last six years just six factories in Leicester had been fined for failing to pay the minimum wage. As for lethal safety failings, LBL report that workers’ complaints to the Health and Safety Executive have been ignored. Nationally, the HSE has not issued a single prohibition notice shutting down a factory since the pandemic began, and only two improvement notices. No action has been taken, nor will any be taken, because Leicester’s sweatshops and those elsewhere form an integral part of Britain’s fashion industry, earning huge profits. The onset of globalisation in the 1970s and 1980s prompted the collapse of the UK’s apparel manufacturing industry, as companies moved to cheap labour platforms in the Far East. Following the 2008 financial crash and the expansion of “fast fashion,” new retailers have used local labour forces (largely composed of migrant workers) and a network of small, outsourced, unregulated suppliers to produce new clothing lines at even lower costs. This business model has flourished during the pandemic. Boohoo’s sales surged 45% in the quarter to the end of May this year, taking the company’s valuation to £5.3b. Its owners and CEO are in line for £50m pay-outs if Boohoo continues to grow.

More important still, far from being outraged by these practices the government consider them a model for the future. Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexiteer cabinet is built around the ideologues of Britannia Unchained, an ultra-free market Thatcherite screed written by Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng and Chris Skidmore. Britannia Unchained attacks the UK’s “bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation” and “unproductive” workers, described as “among the worst idlers in the world.” Its advocates call for a completion of the “Thatcher revolution” in the words of her former Chancellor Nigel Lawson, to secure the profitability of British business through massive tax cuts and deregulation. The coronavirus pandemic is bringing the terrible social consequences of such unbridled capitalist exploitation into sharp relief. While Leicester represents one of the worst and most advanced cases, this is a danger that confronts the whole working class. Food processing workers suffer under nearly identical conditions while warehouse, postal, transport, health and social care workers are being forced to risk their lives in unsafe conditions for minimal wages. No resistance has been offered by the trade union bureaucrats, nor will it ever be. Workers must organise their own independent rank-and-file committees to secure genuinely safe conditions and liveable pay in a common struggle across all sectors, as part of the struggle for a socialist transformation of society.

UK meat-processing factories involved in COVID-19 outbreak back up and running
Tony Robson, WSWS, Jul 8 2020

The 2 Sisters Food Group (2SFG) chicken factory on the island of Anglesey, North Wales is the last of three meat processing companies involved in the largest industrial outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK to restart production. The multi-millionaire owner of 2SFG, Ranjit Boparan, now portrays himself as a responsible owner, and the decision to suspend production for a fortnight ending Jul 3 as a grand gesture and an “opportunity to supplement our existing control measures.” The implication is that the previous safety measures were insufficient, rather than essentially non-existent. But the company knows it will not face any legal action or be forced to implement any safety measures that might impede its efforts to maximise profit. The first reported case of COVID-19 at the chicken factory was on May 28. It spread unchecked before the factory was finally forced to close on Jun 18 after the number of infections had reached 58. Subsequent testing has seen the total climb to 216, nearly half the workforce. Employees told Wales Live they had been forced to work in a climate of fear before the decision was belatedly taken to suspend production. One said:

We could see people around us catching it and going off ill, and we had to carry on, scared to breathe at times, knowing it was in the air around us.

Another said they felt like “cannon fodder.” While 2 m social-distancing applied to corridors and the canteen, it did not apply to the factory floor. Protective visors had holes cut into them to prevent them steaming up. The outbreak constituted a far wider threat to the whole island, with a population of 70k people. The Welsh government’s planned reopening of schools announced for Jun 29 had to be cancelled locally. However, any further lockdowns have been resisted in Anglesey, as in all other areas hit by an outbreak of the virus in the meat processing industry. All the agencies tasked with responding to the emergency local health bodies, councils, the Health and Safety Executive and the trade unions, have instead worked to conceal the criminality of the corporation, so it does not interfere with the premature re-opening of the economy by the Johnson government. The HSE’s monitoring of the situation and new safety measures implemented at the 2 Sisters site, even as production is ramped up, are no guarantee of workers’ safety. Hundreds of workers have been infected without the HSE serving a single prohibition notice.

According to media reports, the company has implemented 30 additional safety measures, which include full “opposite” and “side-by-side” screening, teams managed in “bubbles” and CCTV surveillance of potential high traffic areas. But there has been no suggestion of a re-engineering of the ventilation system, which has been identified as a distributor of the virus in cold and damp factory settings. Neither is there any reference to the control of line speeds to ensure social distancing. Another significant factor identified in the spread of the virus was the overcrowded housing of predominantly migrant workers who work in the meat-processing plants. The recommendations drawn up for the meat-processing industry by the Welsh Labour government, together with the unions, did not propose rehousing these workers in decent accommodation. Rather it suggested that workers’ living arrangements should conform to their “working cohort” within the factory. The promise by the UNITE union that “no stone would be left unturned” over safety improvements has proved to be a fraud. The union has instead provided 2 Sisters with a clean bill of health. Paddy McNaught, UNITE’s regional organiser, said:

The company have recognised that they need the help of their staff in getting back to business. They’ve been honest and open with us as we worked to put new procedures in place.

On the local community based Facebook page, “Anglesey Mon News,” the announcement of the reopening of the 2 Sisters site received many angry responses from locals, including:

As usual ££££££ comes first. Owners are greedy, they don’t give a toss about the staff. They are only a number. Time to get out of Anglesey, before it kicks off again.

The pleas and entreaties by UNITE for a new era of corporate responsibility are directed against a growing recognition among workers that their interests are incompatible with the profit drive of the corporations. At Rowan Foods in Wrexham, the other meat-processing plant in North Wales where the virus has swept through the workforce, talks between UNITE and the company have broken down. The company has refused even to pay any more than the weekly Statutory Sick Pay of £95/wk for workers having to self-isolate, and there are reports that workers have continued to work while awaiting their test results. A petition circulating to demand the temporary closure of the site states:

Management are plucking people off the lines as they get notifications of positive results, but everyone is still working alongside these people until they are removed. So even staff that were tested Monday that came back negative have still been in contact with people who have tested positive later in the week.

The latest figure on the total number of COVID-19 infections at Rowan Foods is 283, around a fifth of the workforce. In its defence, Rowan Foods was able to cite an HSE statement of early March that the safety measures it had in place were “successful,” Public Health Wales’s agreement that there is no evidence the workplace is the source of the outbreak, and the Welsh government’s decision not to use its powers to close the plant. A company spokesman said:

We have no serious issues which need addressing and we continue to comply with the law.

The lack of enforcement is mirrored at the Kepak pork plant in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. The company has one in eight of its workforce infected based on recent testing, a total of 130. It has continued operating, stating that it is cooperating with the HSE. The Welsh government has not introduced any local lockdown measures even though the town has a weekly infection rate of 179 per 100k people. This is higher than Leicester in England, which has 141 per 100k, where local lockdown measures are in place. Merthyr, the former mining town, is second in Wales for COVID-19 death rates, with 108 per 100k people. In England, a further outbreak of COVID-19 has been reported at another meat-processing plant owned by the major supermarket chain Asda. On Jul 2, Forza Foods confirmed that 17 workers had tested positive for the virus at its site in Normanton, West Yorkshire, which supplies sliced and cooked meat. Asda was at the centre of the original outbreak in meat-processing plants with its Kober plant in nearby Cleckheaton, which was temporarily closed, with 165 reported cases. No action has been taken to close the Normanton site on the pretext that the confirmed cases were from the same shift. Around 300 employees have been offered tests or the option to self-isolate at home out of a workforce of 1.2k. This is with the seal of approval of the local authority and the HSE. The past few weeks have demonstrated that further outbreaks are inevitable in the meat-processing industry, and that they will invariably be followed by cover-ups. This is an international phenomenon, proving that the most significant “super-spreaders” of the virus are the brutal methods of exploitation employed by the corporations. The fight against the pandemic requires a root and branch transformation of society, based upon the mobilisation of the working class and the fight for socialism.

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