Businesses that continue to “exploit” workers by flouting coronavirus restrictions could lose out on future public sector contracts, Stormont’s deputy first minister has warned.
Michelle O’Neill said non-essential businesses that are telling staff to come to work should be ashamed and need to give themselves a “shake”.
She said essential businesses that continued to operate must ensure that social-distancing rules were observed.
At their daily Covid-19 press briefing at Stormont, Ms O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster warned that Northern Ireland’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) would take enforcement action on any companies that ignored the guidance.
“I would say to anybody who works to get government contracts, I don’t think anybody should look kindly on people who don’t do the right thing in this period, and that includes what we do in government,” warned the deputy first minister.
We have received reports of employers forcing workers to work in unsafe conditions.— Michelle OâNeill (@moneillsf) March 26, 2020
This must stop immediately.
Shame on any employer that is exploiting their workers during this public health emergency.
The health of workers and their families must be paramount.#COVID19 pic.twitter.com/iFWE3HuxfB
She said the executive was still receiving reports of companies with unsafe working arrangements.
“Let me say this to employers today – take responsibility for your workers,” she said.
“Today we are still hearing reports about workers being exploited during this public health emergency. They’re being given no option by their employers other than to go to work, whenever it’s not safe for them to do so.
“That has to stop. It must stop immediately. And shame on any employer that is exploiting their workforce at this moment in time.
“Non-essential businesses – close your doors, stop using your workers in this way, send them home and let them stay there. And if you don’t, we will have to take action against you.”
Ms O’Neill added: “I think that everybody should ask themselves this question: when you look back in this period in our history, did you do the right thing?
“Employers should really give themselves a shake if they’re not doing the right thing.
“I would use every bit of legal power available to me to shut people down who are doing the wrong thing.”
People should look at that advice - if you're a responsible employer who values their employees, you will want to be complying with that advice Arlene Foster
Mrs Foster expressed hope business owners were acting on the message delivered by Stormont on Wednesday around unsafe working practices.
“We will monitor it, however, because we do want to protect the health of our employees and our workforce,” she said.
“Let me say I understand the difficulties of all of these arrangements. But I do want all of our employees to feel valued and I do very much value them all. All of us are doing things differently because these are not normal times.”
She added: “The Health and Safety Executive would much prefer to be involved in advice and assistance to businesses, but they do have an enforcement role as well.”
Mrs Foster said economy minister Diane Dodds had issued updated guidance for business in respect of working conditions.
“People should look at that advice – if you’re a responsible employer who values their employees, you will want to be complying with that advice and I very much hope that’s the route that people take.”