A STEEL construction company will not place its North-East workers on furlough leave unless it is ordered to cease operations completely by the government.

Smulders Projects UK, which employs more than 600 people at its production facility in Wallsend near Newcastle, has since come under fire from the GMB Union.

The Northern Echo has learned those who chose not to remain on the site are being advised to claim either Universal Credit or Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).

It comes after a picture circulating on social media appeared to show a number of workers at Smulders Projects UK in breach of social distancing measures last week.

Etain Stobbart, organiser at the GMB Union, said: “Our members are being asked to work, without the ability to socially distance themselves properly and are clearly being put at risk - they’re packed in like sardines. 

“It took social media posts by workers and questions by GMB for the company to react. If people were to gather in this way outside or at a supermarket the police would attend. 

"Our members face the choice between health and income, as Smulders continue to carry on with no regard for their employee’s safety. 

“If the company can’t keep their workers safe, they must take up the government’s positive announcements over furlough until this crisis is over.  

"There is alot lot of work that is classed as a two-man job there, so when Smulders are saying 'you’ll work by yourself', that is a health and safety problem in itself.

"Those who have to work in groups are unavoidably working on top of each other too.

"I have raised this with the company and advised them that the sensible thing would be to furlough workers to reduce the volume of people on site, because they cannot complete tasks safely."

However, refuting allegations made against Smulders Projects UK, the firm's director said it was not "forcing anybody" to work at the site if they did not feel safe.

Speaking to The Northern Echo, Tom Coosemans also said it had acted on claims workers were "packed like sardines" and had taken immediate steps to enforce social distancing.

He said: “I am devastated by the comments and the pictures that are on social media. We have nothing to hide.

"It is a very challenging situation for everybody. We have been informing the works of social distancing and government measures on COVID-19 from day one."

"We have staggered breaks. We've made more rooms available for breaks to be taken. Some chairs have been removed from canteen areas to keep workers apart.

"We are not forcing anybody to work, people who want to stay home they can stay home. They can apply for government help including Universal Credit or Sick Pay. If they are off for reasons including NHS work then the request paid leave will be granted."

Suggesting it would not be "viable" for the company to furlough its workforce, Mr Coosemans warned the company could fold if it did not remain in operation.

He said: “It’s not viable to pay everybody. I wish I could pay everybody but it’s impossible because that would be the end of Smulders.

"We have million pound contracts behind us, Matt Hancock said himself that it’s very important that people continue to come to work - and we are adhering to the rules.

"If the government told me to shut down, then everybody would be given furlough immediately.

"If I don’t have a legal measure that I am forced to shut down, we are talking about the risk of multi-million pound contracts.

"We are part of a chain of companies who are all working on the same UK project."

Mr Coosemans said he wanted to "ensure" that its workforce had a "company" to return to if the government ordered construction work across the UK to stop due to coronavirus.