Using tech and union skills to support community

Prospect rep and BT Openreach employee James Hughes describes how his skills are helping local people stay connected, including those without internet access, during the coronavirus crisis


James Hughes, a Prospect rep and BT Openreach data specialist, has always been home based. So in that sense his working day looks similar to before the coronavirus pandemic.

However, his life outside work has changed immensely as he uses the skills acquired both in his job and as a union rep to contribute to his local community in Llanelli, a small town of around 45,000 people in Wales.

“At work, what’s changed is I don’t travel to meetings any more,” he says.  “My role is mainly concerned with data – looking at how many people are still unable to get fibre broadband speeds and how we are working to make this happen.

“This is vital during lockdown because of the need to be connected. Fibre enables people to have video conversations and  join in all sorts of things that enhance communication in this difficult time.”

Life under lockdown

Being in lockdown has affected him more than he expected – “I figured that because I was a homeworker it would be easy to adapt, but there are a lot more issues that make things more difficult. Sport is one – I coach an under-12s team.”

James believes the union is vital in these unstable times. “Recruitment has become massively important. We need members throughout BT so that they are not disadvantaged by all the changes still going on.”

Despite pressure from Prospect, BT is continuing with the People Framework restructuring programme and has also announced that managers will receive no pay rise – only a performance related bonus in 2020.

“I am very concerned that people are being put out into a job market that doesn’t exist at the moment. I understand the pay freeze but again, inconsistency in approach between managers and team members means that we are once again disadvantaged compared to team members at the top of their pay scale.”

Keeping people connected

Outside work James’ skills have proved  invaluable.

“We have set up a number of IT initiatives to keep people in the community in touch. These are all based around the local church, and include coffee mornings online, quiz nights and support for people without access to the internet.

“We have created a ‘thought for the day’, accessible via a telephone line as well as a ‘hymn of the day’. This helps those without internet, many them older and on their own. The skills of interacting and listening to people have come in very handy.

“We are also exploring setting up Zoom calls for anyone who might be lonely, including those who can only dial in by phone.

“The biggest challenge is advertising it to people who don’t use the normal online social media channels.”

James and his friends are also providing online clubs for younger kids and an online presence for older kids who want to chat safely together.

“It’s really rewarding when you realise you have enabled someone to connect and makes all the effort worthwhile. Some of this is vital to older folks, and particularly those on their own.

“The phone line was something we set up using an online company – we pay for a local Llanelli number and we pay a small amount every time someone calls.”

James is in lockdown with his wife, who works on a COVID-19 ward as a nurse, and four children. He takes a day’s leave whenever his wife has a shift during the working week.

“That way one of us is always available to school the kids. I’ve had to tinker with some old PCs and laptops at home to get four working machines for them!

“There are challenges at times to keep everyone focused – and respond to the multiple calls for help – but they have done really well and the teachers have been fantastic at providing a stream of work.”