This coronavirus crisis has exposed how reliant everyone in the United Kingdom is on working people. Without supermarket workers, often continuing to work without adequate personal protective equipment, people would not be able to feed themselves and their households. Without the drivers of trains, buses, taxis, and other vehicles, those people that have to continue essential work would not be able to get to work. Without cleaners, offices where work has to continue there would be an even greater health risk. Construction workers have carried out essential building. Tradespeople have done vital repairs. Workers have secured people’s health, care, travel, shelter, and livelihoods. Quite simply, without workers, life would not have been able to go on.
But the working conditions, pay, and entitlements of many of these workers suggest they have not been seen as essential or valuable in the eyes of government policy and law coming into this crisis. The last ten years has seen a “pay disaster”, in the words of the chief economist of the Bank of England. Statutory sick pay is at a measly £95.85 per week for those in workplaces that do not offer occupational health sick pay schemes, and many zero-hours contract workers and other ‘gig economy’ workers do not have access to statutory sick pay at all, as the TUC and others have pointed out. Low-paid workers are not eligible for statutory sick pay because of the ‘lower earnings limit’. Workers considered ‘independent contractors’ or ‘limb (b) workers’ – workers without the status of permanent employees – receive far fewer protections at work. As a result, many feel precarious. Duties to ensure health and safety at work are weakly enforced, if they are enforced at all.
Coming into the crisis the TUC suggested 3.7 million people in the UK were in insecure work. In February 2020 zero-hours contracts hit a record high with 974,000 workers in a job with no guaranteed hours. Insecure work has gradually spread into new industries over time, such as banking and education. It was only in February 2020 that average wages, adjusted for inflation, inched back above the level they were at before the 2008 financial crisis. There was also widespread labelling of certain kinds of work as “low-skilled”: in early 2020 Home Secretary Priti Patel introduced an immigration system that would bring care work and early childhood teachers under that banner. Work done by women, and Black and Asian workers, has been systematically under-valued.
We all need work, and decent work, to feel secure. We need jobs that can be protected, earnings we can count on, and that are regular. And the value derived from secure work has been clear during recent months. It is those with secure work who often found it easiest to work from home or go home, and invariably the same people have been the last to return to work, allowing time to be saved on commuting. But we have become most aware of the value of secure and decent work only after a decades-long attack on the rights of people at work.
Margaret Thatcher’s “goal was to smash the unions forever”. She introduced legislation reducing compensation for unfair dismissal, enabling punishment for striking, restricting strikes in support of other workers and ended the ‘closed shop’. The head of her policy unit, Ferdinand Mount, wrote a policy a paper that read: “We must see it to our new legal structure discourages trade union membership of the new industries.”
Privatisation and outsourcing was often justified on the ground of reduced costs; but invariably this reduced cost was secured by undercutting workers’ pay and conditions. Sweeping deregulation also loosened protections at work. This assault on labour continued into the 1990s, with the requirement of postal ballots introduced for strikes.
Although some teade union fredoms were restored, key elements of anti-trade union legislation were maintained under Blair’s Labour government, including through the Employment Relations Act 1999. Then, between 2010 and 2020 efforts to dismantle organised labour were redoubled under successive Conservative-led governments. The Trade Union Act 2016 introduced even further restrictions on when a strike was possible. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey called it “a dark day for workers” when the Act was passed. Analysis by the thinktank IPPR showed that the decline in trade union membership over the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s occurred at the same time as there was a sharp rise in inequality. Between 1979 and 2014 membership of trade unions fell by 47% in the UK. Over the same period the share of wealth that went to the richest 1% leapt by 134%.
There is now an opportunity, coming out of the coronavirus crisis, to ensure we revalue work and workers – and turn a shift in public understanding into social, political, and legal change. But it is important to recognise that this will involve unwinding at least four decades’ worth of attempts to undermine worker and trade union rights.
This is no time to be timid in our demands, given the increasingly widespread understanding that some workers have been under-valued and the broader recognition that after coronavirus there can be no return to a pre-crisis ‘normal’.
Sectoral collective bargaining is the single most important way to ensure good minimum terms, conditions, and pay are agreed across an industry. A clear first step demand connected to coronavirus might be for sectoral collective bargaining in the care sector, and for it to be strengthened and extended in the public sector. Elizabeth Carney, an ex-care worker, has written powerfully about working conditions in care agencies. “We were very low paid,” she writes, with no “paid travel time or petrol”, “very isolating circumstances”, limited training, no “attention to mental health” or a worker’s “quality of life”, and little time to build relationships with people being cared for. Carney adds that the coronavirus scandal in care homes has been neglected because it is largely “a working class women’s issue”. Ensuring that sectoral collective bargaining occurs within the care sector (alongside insourcing) would allow carers themselves to speak to the changes needed in working conditions, in collaboration with the government and employers. The goal should be sectoral collective bargaining across all sectors, but the care sector could demonstrate the value of the approach.
One important call is for the restoration of trade union rights and the creation of new rights and freedoms, exercised individually and collectively. This can only be done through repealing the Trade Union Act 2016 and overhauling earlier legislation restricting the rights to organise, strike, and gain access to workplaces for organising. The safety of workplaces, and the ability of workers to speak up and act where they are unsafe, is paramount as the country emerges out of recession. Restoring and expanding trade union rights will include resourcing and expanding the rights of health and safety representatives. Barriers continue to exist to membership of trade unions, even as it was reported that union membership had grown by almost 100,000. A policy intervention that could facilitate membership of trade unions is making membership of a relevant trade union an opt-out provision of every employment contract, though this move may have practical risks and could result in inactive members. It is a policy debate for the trade union movement to conduct.
Alongside the restoration and expansion of trade union rights, there is an urgent need to bring to an end the scourge of insecure work. Insecure work has been enabled by the development of multiple categories of ‘worker’: a person can be a worker, limb (b) worker, or independent contractor. The second and third categories have reduced protections, as Unite, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, and others have repeatedly pointed out. In many cases companies have stipulated a worker’s status in a contract, including in ways that does not align with the reality of life at work for that worker. The two-tiered workforce created by this legal framework has been exposed in coronavirus, especially in the limited access to sick pay for some workers (including agency workers).
Returning to one category of ‘worker’, with an exception only for the genuinely self-employed, will be a strong step towards ending the exploitation of insecure work. It may also be important as a shield against possible moves by employers to water down protections of workers if working from home becomes more common after the coronavirus crisis (which will bring risks to physical and mental health). Moving towards one category of ‘worker’ will ensure wider access to statutory sick pay, but it is also essential that levels of statutory sick pay are boosted, to the level of the real living wage, as the TUC has called for. The Office for National Statistics has noted that care homes where staff have received sick pay have been less likely to have cases of coronavirus in residents, compared with care homes that do not pay sick pay – a reminder that good statutory sick pay is a protection of the health and wellbeing of all of us in workplaces and communities. As well, other steps need to be taken to end insecure work, including banning zero-hours contracts. These legal changes must also be accompanied by proper resourcing of enforcement of workers’ rights including through legal changes to impose harsher penalties on non-compliant employers.
Entitlements and legal protections will only go so far, however, especially in a world where people work without contracts and cannot access courts to resolve disputes. Boosting the minimum wage is an essential way to value workers properly. Prior to the coronavirus crisis the minimum wage was not a real living wage. After the crisis, with more people out of work, in debt, and facing utility bills and rents without any relief, the minimum wage is likely to seem even more inadequate. Businesses may claim that increasing the minimum wage will place burdens on them at a time when they need to be supported.
However, increasing the minimum wage is a way of injecting money back into the economy, since those paid the least are highly likely to spend these wages rather than save them. Businesses will, rightly, be supported in the coming months through increased investment in infrastructure, which should reduce other costs. Along with more generous social security and other actions to mitigate debt and housing costs, raising the minimum wage could also help to reduce in-work poverty (which has risen by a third since 1996/7). The Bakers Union has called for pay to rise to £15 an hour. The Labour Party proposed a £10 per hour minimum wage in the 2019 election. This change to the minimum wage would show that clapping for NHS and care workers on Thursday evenings, and rhetoric about valuing workers, is more than mere symbolism.
For many, in particular those who have not had to continue working, the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need for a better balance to be struck between work and rest. But the government can play a role in supporting healthier working patterns, in particular through reducing workinh hours and increasing the number of bank holidays. Past work by the New Economics Foundation has shown that the UK works among the longest hours of any country in north-western Europe, and that the link between increased productivity and increased leisure time has been broken in recent years. New Economics Foundation analysis notes that “increasing leisure time while protecting pay can be expected to increase spending in the economy overall.”
A decision to introduce, say, four additional bank holidays for each devolved nation of the United Kingdom might also encourage domestic travel (with associated spending increases) as social contact becomes more widespread, but international travel remains restricted, in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. New Zealand’s government raised this proposal as it emerged out of lockdown in May 2020.
It can be part of a broader move towards reducing working time with no loss of pay, including amending the Working Time Regulations 1998 and establishing a Working Time Commission to recommend a flexible process over time of reducing the average workng hours to 32 hours a week and increasing statutory leave entitlements without increasing unemployment.
To support those not in work, and the bargaining power of those in work, it is time for a Minimum Income Guarantee, increasing the minimum level that anyone is expected to live on if accessing social security. The New Economics Foundation has called for that minimum to be set at £221 per week – in line with the calculation by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation of a minimum income standard. The TUC has called for the basic level of Universal Credit (which is paid to households rather than individuals) to be increased to £260 a week. As more people are needing to access social security, it is essential that long-overdue changes are made to ensure it gives people enough to live on.
These six policy interventions – introducing sectoral collective bargaining, restoring and expanding trade union rights, creating a single status of ‘worker’, boosting the minimum wage, reducing working hours and increasing bank holidays, and establishing a Minimum Income Guarantee – could all empower workers, building on the shift in thinking about work that has begun during our experience with coronavirus. Of course, these interventions are not enough on their own, and must be accompanied by other shifts to increase the power of the labour movement. Extending universal basic services (including public broadband and free public transport) will reduce costs faced by workers. Establishing a Ministry of Labour within government to oversee sectoral collective bargaining will ensure a laser-like focus on the issues outlined. Improving access to legal aid as well as the accessibility of tribunals for employment disputes will support the resolution of disputes. Efforts to improve industrial democracy – for example, through legislative changes to support worker ownership and reserving places on boards for workers – will buttress the protections mentioned above. There will also be important shorter-term demands, such as the extension of the furlough scheme and the need for government bail-outs to be tied to decent work conditions.
These changes will not be introduced without pressure. Greater creative thinking is needed about how to bring to bear that pressure on employers and government, especially in a world where online meetings are the norm and opportunities for face-to-face contact (or in-person organising and actions) are reduced. The next key stage is coordinating that pressure; what has been discussed here is just a set of shared starting points for action.