ELEVEN million workers face destitution because of gaps in government support.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 15, 2020
This grim news comes as deaths from Covid-19 are still rising. Britain is on course to be the worst-hit country in Europe as the number dying after contracting the virus rises — and this is based on official statistics that experts warn are likely to be a grave underestimate.
The reason Britain is faring so badly against coronavirus is directly linked to the reason that 11 million workers — over a third of the workforce — will be unable to take advantage of the job and income support schemes announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Both are down to the “bargain basement economy” pursued by Conservative governments over the past decade — and to a deregulating, marketising agenda shared by both Britain’s main parties for decades before that.
Chronic low pay, bogus self-employment, zero-hours contracts and underemployment mean an estimated nine million people will lose out on statutory sick pay.
There’s a twisted irony to millions being ineligible for sick pay during a pandemic, but the figure shows just how many workers were in this extremely vulnerable position before it struck.
Workers on insecure contracts are far less likely to qualify for the jobs retention scheme or to be furloughed by their employers in the first place.
Those who have to stay out of work to care for dependants whose schools or nurseries have closed down may also fall through the gaps.
The Chancellor has — rightly — set aside hundreds of billions to help businesses and workers, but the approach remains piecemeal.
It fails to account for the fragmented nature of the British workforce, or the bewildering array of employment models that exist (mostly designed to disempower staff or allow their employers to evade their responsibilities — either to the public purse via tax and national insurance or to the employee via sick and holiday pay).
Catastrophic loss of income is a tragedy for any family.
Evidence already suggests many are being forced to choose between eating and paying the rent.
A short-term ban on formal eviction processes hasn’t stopped landlords exerting pressure on tenants to leave their homes — even in the midst of a government-ordered lockdown — nor does it do anything to address the plight of those owing rent arrears once the temporary ban is lifted.
In current conditions this also intensifies the public health risk. Despite the fact that Covid-19 is still ravaging the country, that the NHS is under unprecedented strain and health and social care workers are dying because of inadequate protection, pressure is mounting from business and the right-wing press to accelerate the end of the lockdown and prioritise a return to “business as usual.”
It received bizarre support from new Labour leader Keir Starmer yesterday as he called on the government to publish its plan for ending the lockdown — even pushing for an early resumption of the school term just 24 hours after the National Education Union wrote to ministers asking them to quash this dangerous idea, which puts pupils, teachers and their families at risk, though he qualified this with a justified call for mass testing and contact tracing.
Corporate bosses may yearn for “business as usual”— but it’s the last thing Labour should be demanding.
As the Institute of Employment Rights’s Carolyn Jones argues, the economic dislocation caused by the pandemic has thrown into relief the extreme precarity of millions of working people — meaning “we need a new, post-pandemic settlement” for labour.
From the NHS to transport workers and from posties to shop assistants, it is workers, not management, who are seeing us through this crisis.
They deserve a better deal and Labour should be standing with trade unions fighting to win them one.
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