When you’re stuck at home, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are millions of people still heading into work each day. From couriers and postal workers to social workers and retail staff, the key workers keeping Britain running make up a huge chunk of the workforce.
It’s hard to get an absolute figure, but as many as 10.6 million people, or a third of the overall workforce, are employed in key worker industries – and over half of them are employed by the government. The vast majority of these workers are on low pay and are unable to work from home. And for the millions still leaving home for work, the pandemic has birthed an array of brand new problems – problems we often hear nothing about.
For one, there’s Covid itself. Key workers are disproportionately more likely to only be covered by statutory sick pay—at just £95 per week, one of the lowest rates in Europe—when they have to miss work, making self-isolating impossible for many. As a result of this and more, key workers are not only more likely to be infected, but are as much as three times more likely to die from the virus compared to the national average. They say Covid doesn’t discriminate, but class certainly does.
On top of all that, the pandemic has caused countless specific problems in each and every one of these industries. Tribune has taken a look at just three of these forgotten frontline professions to find out what it’s like to quietly keep society running.
As the pandemic rages on, food shops have been some of the few places to remain open. As a result, staff in those stores have been on the receiving end of a tidal wave of abuse, threats, and sometimes violence.
‘By our estimates, the levels of abuse and violence doubled in the first weeks of the pandemic,’ says Doug Russell, health and safety officer at shop workers’ union Usdaw. ‘It’s become a daily occurrence for some, and a weekly occurrence for many. It’s really quite shocking. Every day, when you go into work, you’re watching your back to see who’s coming in the door.’
New research by the union has found that 88% of shop workers reported facing verbal abuse while working this year, 61% reported being physically threatened, and 9% have been physically assaulted. As many as 13% were saying they faced abuse on a daily basis. (Before the pandemic, those first three figures were roughly 60%, 40%, and 5% respectively – still far too high.) The impact on workers is dire – as one, who chose not to give his name, explained: ‘It has increased my anxiety and depression and makes me feel like we’re risking our health and lives for nothing.’
The cause of this aggression is more complex. Rising confidence among Covid deniers is one factor, according to Russell, as are Covid regulations. Retail workers have been conscripted by the government to enforce a whole array of measures like social distancing or mask wearing, but they lack the authority or the government protection enjoyed by a force like the police to safely follow through.
In the summer last year, Usdaw launched a petition calling for a law to prohibit abusing retail workers, which became the fastest-growing petition on the government website after gaining over ten thousand signatures in one day. The Ministry of Justice has been against the proposal, though, suggesting that current laws are enough to handle any abuse faced. This is despite the fact that the MoJ passed a similar law for emergency service workers just two years ago.
More than anything, the challenge is just getting the government and society generally to recognise that there is a problem. ‘People just take shop workers for granted,’ Russell tells me. ‘They always have.’
While food shops remain open, other outlets have been forced onto the internet. Online shopping during the pandemic has skyrocketed, with sales rising by as much 52% in December alone. And the extra work that has caused has fallen upon the postal staff tasked with delivering our parcels.
One postman in Leeds recorded walking 85 miles and working 67 hours a week – but he’s hardly an outlier. ‘I think most of us are working 11 hours a day right now,’ says Luke Elgar, a postman in Southend and a member of the Communication Worker’s Union (CWU) NEC. ‘Christmas was something else – with everyone in lockdown and retail shut, people were ordering everything online, and that was on top of what was already massive levels of work.
‘With the lockdown continuing the let-off hasn’t come. Normally there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but at the moment, there isn’t.’
Elgar went viral last month in a video calling out the right-wing press and Tory ministers like Edward Argar for unfairly scapegoating postal workers for delays despite the unprecedented amount of work.
Coping with that workload and overtime is made all the worse when management struggles to keep workplaces Covid-safe. Last week, hundreds of workers at Royal Mail’s Wimbledon office went on strike after a manager deliberately broke Covid regulations.
Workers at the site described how the manager avoided their legal obligation to self-isolate by deleting and re-downloading the NHS Covid app, thereby putting the entire workforce at risk in an office where just a week before at least ten workers tested positive for Covid. The police were even called over the incident, but took no further action.
In the end, the workers felt they had no choice but to walk out. ‘People were concerned with not only themselves but their families, and [the manager’s actions] completely undermined all of the health and safety measures we’ve been taking,’ an office source said. ‘At no point were management conciliatory – they just said they could do whatever they liked.’
‘Back in the first lockdown I rode through Soho when the streets were completely dead. The only people there were homeless people begging for money, or delivery drivers, who were essentially begging through the app on their phone,’ says IWGB President Alex Marshall.
A former courier himself, Marshall recently became the president of the trade union for the UK’s delivery drivers and couriers. He tells me that the pandemic has dramatically worsened conditions for drivers in the already precarious gig economy.
At first glance, that might seem odd. Brands like Deliveroo have boasted of record revenue, as a pandemic-driven rise in deliveries has propelled business growth by years and pushed the company into profit for the first time. They even launched a flashy recruitment drive for 15,000 new riders.
But by ‘flooding cities’ with riders, as Marshall puts it, they have introduced more workers competing for a finite number of jobs. ‘Even at a time when business is booming, drivers aren’t seeing an increase in pay,’ he says. ‘Many are actually talking about topping up wages with Universal Credit because they’re making so little.’
If that wasn’t enough, automated firing systems by firms like UberEats have left many couriers without a job or a way to appeal, even if the dismissal is completely unfounded. Union officers have seen hundreds of cases, with reasons varying from restaurants making food late to couriers breaching safety measures of which they were never informed.
These unjust firings have a disastrous effect on victims. One London driver had bailiffs knocking on his door within days of being terminated; another, a father of three, was forced into destitution and has had to rely on a IWGB crowdfund to stay afloat. ‘You’re not able to save any money in these jobs,’ Marshall says. ‘There’s nothing to fall back on. If you lose your job, you’re in serious trouble.’
Then there’s PPE. Marshall says many companies just don’t provide it, or promise to, but constantly fail to deliver. Other companies offer subsidies for PPE that rarely arrive – and even if they do, they’re not enough to cover costs.
‘Far too much burden is being placed on the low-paid worker who is out on the street and exposed, rather than on these rich companies,’ Marshall tells Tribune. ‘More and more, they have streamlined things to make sure they have no responsibility for any of the unprofitable parts of having employees. Whether it’s PPE, vehicles, or just basic workers’ rights, they’ve managed to completely cut it down so their sole focus is profit.’
Neither couriers, postal workers, nor shop staff are alone in their struggles. They are just a small fraction of millions of forgotten frontline workers in countless professions for whom the pandemic has spawned a range of problems: problems that for many will have an impact that lasts long after coronavirus. The Left must include all those facing these challenges when demanding better pay, safety, and conditions for workers – especially when things look this bleak.