Coming hard on the heels of a decade of austerity, Covid-19 has further exposed Britain’s myriad social and economic inequalities. The burden of the pandemic has, inevitably, weighed heaviest on those least able to bear it. With the spectre of mass unemployment looming large as furlough support is withdrawn, these effects are only likely to intensify.
What’s also been exposed is the cavalier attitude of successive British governments to workers’ rights and protections. The current government’s failures at the outset of the pandemic with regard to providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to NHS, care home and other key workers put the health of many thousands at avoidable risk; hundreds of health and care workers are thought to have died of the virus.
As infections rose once more, the government finally admitted defeat and abandoned its attempts to badger people back into offices. Others, however, have had no alternative but to return to workplaces where effective protective measures (including PPE and social distancing) are either absent or half-heartedly implemented. Outbreaks of the virus have affected workplaces including textile factories, warehouses and meatpacking plants.
A recent survey from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) highlighted the lackadaisical approach taken by many of Britain’s employers. Of 2,100 workers surveyed for the TUC, less than half – 46 per cent – said their workplace had introduced social distancing measures, while just 38 per cent reported that their employer had completed a Covid-19 risk assessment, despite this being a legal requirement for firms with more than five employees.
In June, meanwhile, a report from Labour Behind the Label claimed that textile workers in Leicester – working for as little as £3 an hour in dilapidated, cramped and poorly-ventilated factories – were being ordered to work while suffering symptoms to fulfil orders for brands including Boohoo. For years, the city’s textile industry has been notorious for the disgraceful conditions and illegal practices to which many of its firms have subjected their workers.
For all the high-flown rhetoric about national unity, however, the government’s primary response has been to scapegoat and ostracise certain groups – berating people going to the beach, for congregating in parks, or simply for being Muslim – to deflect attention from its own abysmal handling of the situation. Much of the media have enthusiastically played along with the Tories’ culture war, while turning a blind eye to rising workplace transmission.
As unemployment grows, the danger is that more workers will be forced to accept unsafe jobs on dismally low wages, putting them at risk of contracting and spreading the virus in order to continue eking out a living. The government’s planned cuts to Universal Credit also threaten to plunge millions of low-income households into even greater financial precarity and penury, with those in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ likely to be hardest hit.
Already, many workers are unable to take the financial hit of self-isolating – which, for those unable to work from home, means taking time off work – should they fall ill. Statutory sick pay is such a pittance (at just £96 a week) that, according to the TUC, 43 per cent of workers would need to take out loans or defer paying bills if they had to self-isolate for a fortnight, with the average worker losing £800 in earnings over that period.
All of this surely compels us to confront the reality of work in Britain today. Far from being confined to the ranks of the formal ‘gig economy’, precariousness and abysmal rates of remuneration are endemic to much of the British labour market. Millions are no more than a couple of pay days away from destitution, while evictions are resuming following a six-month moratorium; Shelter has estimated that in England, around 230,000 tenants have fallen into arrears since the pandemic started.
Far from the myths of feather-bedding peddled for so long in the right-wing press, the British social security system is likely to prove drastically inadequate to the sheer scale of the coming crisis. Many of those hitherto fortunate enough not to have been acquainted with its parsimoniousness and petty bureaucratic sadism are going through a sudden crash course on the matter.
For his part, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, a former investment banker with a net worth estimated at about £200 million, appears content to let thousands of ‘unviable’ jobs – and perhaps entire industries, including the creative sectors – go to the wall. Addressing the recent virtual Tory Party conference, Sunak intoned pompously about his “sacred duty” to “balance the books”; the indications are that, true to Tory form, he plans to do it on the backs of the working class.
When Sunak was asked this week what creative workers should do to survive as their existing livelihoods are vapourised, his response was almost Tebbitesque in its blinkered lack of compassion: they should, he said, “adapt and adjust to the new reality”, and retrain for vacancies that also don’t exist. Though perhaps, for a lucky few, there’ll be jobs serving “champagne and canapés” at Sunak’s “lavish summer parties.”
Recent months have seen evidence of increased trade union membership – the beginning of a long march towards recovery for a labour movement decimated by the attacks of recent decades. But much more will be needed to turn the tide in Britain’s workplaces. One thing is clear: workers have few friends in politics today; the only way to protect themselves against Covid-19 and its economic fallout will be to organise.