After the Applause

A new campaign from GMB trade union says it's time to move beyond clapping – and calls on the public to back demands for increased pay for key workers at the frontlines of the pandemic crisis.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing the well-rehearsed lies fed to us by bosses, politicians and defenders of the economic status quo. In just a few weeks the crisis has shattered any remaining illusions that our current system treats working-class people as anything other than disposable.

Broad statements and loose definitions from the UK government on banning all but essential work have caused chaos in workplaces. Factories, building sites, restaurants, bars and clubs refused to close, putting workers’ lives at risk until they were given sufficient assurances that costs would be covered either through insurance or by direct government subsidy. Small independent businesses, the self employed and those on zero hour contracts were largely left to fend for themselves. 

Trade unions responded quickly to ensure their members’ wages were protected through furloughing payments, while trying to force workplaces to temporarily close. It was an unusual battle, but one they didn’t shy away from. But there was still a tremendous battle to be fought over PPE and testing. Sadly, that battle hasn’t been won – and many workers have paid the price of government failures. The pandemic has exposed decades-old mismanagement and under-funding of essential service across our society. 

In many cases, risk assessments were found to be criminally unsuitable. Workers with underlying health conditions and symptoms were told to report to work as normal, in an attempt to prevent the thousands of essential workplaces (where staffing levels had already been reduced beyond breaking point to save costs) from crumbling. Employers who have historically struggled to fill positions due to the poverty pay that is often on offer were sent into a panic. Any remaining workforce they have s being pushed beyond their limits, with increased workloads and infection rates decimating morale and capacity. 

It is in this context that the GMB trade union has launched its ‘After the Applause’ campaign. Badges and medals won’t replace PPE and testing. Throwing money at tax-dodging businesses and handing essential contracts for testing centres to outsourcers such as Serco will not protect our economy. We need to recognise the true worth of essential workers – and paying them what they are worth would be a good start.

On Thursday April 30th, GMB Scotland held an online rally for key workers on the eve of this year’s May Day celebrations. The rally was led by workers on the frontline in the fight against the virus, each setting out their demands for workplace justice. Robert Pollock spoke about the fight in the Scottish Ambulance Service for life-saving PPE and what it has been like to be a first responder to Covid-19 call outs. Elsie McLaughlin, a carer in Angus, recorded a message highlighting the false narrative around skilled work, which before this pandemic excluded carers who are regularly paid less than £10 per hour in some of the most challenging circumstances.

Diane Brownlee, a GMB Scotland steward working in ASDA, gave us a glimpse into the anxieties faced by key workers in supermarkets, as they work to ensure food is kept on our tables. Diane further touched on how only months before, thousands of workers at ASDA were forced into signing new contracts on worse terms under threat of losing their jobs. That situation is all too familiar for key workers across the UK who have seen and felt their roles degrade over the last decade. 

Liz Martin, a shop steward in private care, spoke of the impact this pandemic has had on care homes and the staff who work in them. Liz ended her contribution with a challenge for politicians to spend a week working 12 hour shifts for £9.30 an hour. Sounds about right. Much has been made of the challenge of protecting the vulnerable in our care homes. Care workers see their work as more than just a job, the bonds and relationships developed with residents cannot be overstated. For many the loss experienced during this period has been devastating.

Even before the crisis hit, GMB organisers were banned from visiting members employed by various private care companies. We had to arrange meetings for members in car parks, smoking shelters and cafés. In the run up to lockdown it was clear that systemic trends of understaffing, overworking and low pay were having a huge impact on both the staff and residents. Yet no change has been forthcoming.

Assistant cook Steph Smith and cleansing worker Barry McAreevey spoke at the rally about the often-forgotten role that cleaners, cooks, bin men and road sweepers play in keeping our vital services running. Within local government these are some of the most physically challenging roles on some of the lowest pay. There has been much to take heart in – from the cooks and caterers ensuring meals get to our most isolated in our communities to the amazing solidarity of the people of Glasgow who have been leaving thank you notes and refreshments for the cleansing workers across the city. These examples are only a snapshot of the inspiring class solidarity and affinity between our communities and key workers. 

Messages of solidarity were read from the comments as GMB members and workers from across Scotland tuned in to represent their branch and fellow union members. Members in the prison escort service fighting for union recognition were in good numbers, as were council workers from across the Highlands and Islands. There were even videos from local TV personalities and one from American author and organiser Jane MacAlevey, giving the rally an added international dimension.

The rally ended with emotional and inspiring contributions. Shona Thomson is a home carer and the secretary of the Glasgow care branch, as well as a veteran of the historic equal pay campaign. Close to tears, she reminded us all of the professionalism and skilled work that carers carry out on a daily basis, before paying tribute to all workers who have sadly lost their lives in the fight against Covid-19. The carers who have selflessly risked their lives for £5ph less than the average wage. 

We heard from Chris Mitchell, GMB convenor for the Glasgow cleansing department. He ended with a rousing poem, stood outside the city’s western depot with the streets lined with cleansing workers. Chris delivered a short speech to camera culminating with a rallying call and challenge to all employers: “Do something drastic, don’t treat us like trash, we are key workers, we deserve more, cash!”

Under the umbrella of the STUC’s Time £2 Pay Key Workers Campaign, GMB Scotland are calling for an immediate £2 per hour wage supplement for every key worker for every hour they work. If we use an example of a carer aged over 25 and earning the real Scottish Living Wage of £9.30, a £2 per hour boost would see a massive increase of 21.5% on their hourly rate. By setting a clear precedent in the public sector we could then look at how we best apply pressure collectively as a movement on private sector employers who refuse to recognise the value of key workers. 

The applause each Thursday is welcome, and we are pleased to name our campaign ‘After the Applause’ in recognition. But it’s time to move beyond the clapping and push for a £2 per hour supplement which will immediately ease the strain on our hardest working and lowest paid key workers. It can never eradicate the real fear of bringing the virus home and exposing families to the risk of infection, nor will it be enough to overcome the systemic undervaluing of frontline key workers in the long term. But it would be a start.

This crisis has only served to expose and amplify the unacceptable pay and conditions that, workers like Robert, Elsie, Liz, Steph, Barry, Shona, Chris and millions of others have endured for far too long. They deserved a pay rise before the pandemic hit and they will deserve one long after it’s gone. Key workers the length and breadth of the UK are the backbone not only of our economy and our society, but the backbone of our entire class and movement. Workers organised within trade unions are the catalyst for the sustained and systemic change we all so desperately need.

In the fight against this virus, all have given something, some have sadly given all. It is our collective duty to honour the memory of all those who have lost their lives protecting ours. It is time for the rest of society to fight for a better future for workers and their families. 

After the applause tonight, we ask you to raise the demand: pay up for key workers.