Crises bring into sharp focus the contradictions and conditions of the way the world is organised. Through the disruption of the flows of people, money and things, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the importance of the work that brings food to our tables and care and support for our loved ones.
Whilst many white-collar workers isolate at home, large swathes of those with insecure and low-paid employment find themselves on the ‘front-line’ of the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic has clarified the extent to which the country depends on nursery workers, supermarket attendants, delivery drivers, refuse collectors, carers and cleaners.
But the coronavirus has also drawn attention to the conflicts and tensions that characterise this work and exposed the racialised, gendered and classed boundaries of many ‘front-line’ jobs. These essential workers are putting themselves at tremendous risk for often ‘poverty’ wages.
COVID-19 has also laid bare the labyrinthine character of employment status and labour regulation in the UK, whereby labour rights are dependent upon the status of the individual.
The recent discussions about government support for the self-employed have highlighted the complex and sometimes conflicting needs of the self-employed workforce. Though some may consider traditionally ‘self-employed’ persons to be financially stable, owning their own businesses and the means of production, the current employment landscape paints a very different picture of gig workers struggling to make ends meet. This means that ‘self-employed’ workers like Deliveroo riders stand to suffer most, lacking entitlement to statutory sick pay and redundancy payments.
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, proposes to revisit the vexed question of national insurance contributions for the self-employed once the crisis is over. However, the temporary financial help currently offered to the self-employed leaves unsolved the longer-lasting policy challenge of how best to support the ‘entrepreneurs’ to which successive governments pay lip service. The COVID-19 Self Employment Income Support Scheme will allow the self-employed to claim a taxable grant worth 80% of their trading profits up to a maximum of £2,500 per month over the next three months. But this only applies to those who have submitted an Income Tax Self-Assessment return for the tax year 2018-19. This means that any new businesses or service providers will not be able to access the scheme – despite the fact that these groups are likely to be most in need.
Workers on zero-hour contracts also lack security as their hours and income are reduced in line with unfavourable market conditions. In typically high-turnover sectors, they are left with little recourse to dismissal or redundancy rights which could help them withstand the financial pressures of rent and bills. Those who fall through the net of the employment framework and the Government’s COVID-19 schemes will be expected to access the defective Universal Credit scheme which provides £317.82 per household per month. Those workers who sadly develop COVID-19, or its related symptoms, will have to rely on statutory sick pay at a rate of £94.25 per week.
The crisis has also exposed the sectors of the economy where the ‘Wild West’ of unfettered employer power and employee precariousness has been allowed to run free. This is evident in the demands of corporations to be recognised as ‘essential service providers’, such as Sports Direct, putting the health of staff members at risk. In such enterprises, many staff will be classed as ‘workers’ rather than ‘employees’, and as such lack the legal ability to refuse work as a result of poor health and safety measures under sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. As noted by Charlotte Villiers, “it is now incumbent upon corporate leaders to play their part in protecting their workers, customers and suppliers from the worst impacts”.
Under duress, the government has intervened to protect workers and the economy from the creative destruction that may yet trail in COVID-19’s wake. One consequence of the crisis might be greater bargaining power for workers in a range of formerly hidden sectors newly designated as ‘key’ to social and economic life, including: delivery, health, maintenance, and care.
For many of us this period has not meant a pre-emptory glimpse of a coming post-work society, but rather what Bifo Berardi calls “the valorization of human activities which have escaped from labour’s domination”. For Kathi Weeks, it challenges us to think about other ways to organise, distribute and most importantly value work within life.
Military metaphors are ten-a-penny today but just as returning servicemen and women were promised homes fit for heroes after the war, there will in time be demands for something similar awaiting those on the frontline of this fight. As so many now rely on so few, we must demand adequate protection for these workers in the short-term and increased remuneration for these groups in the long-term. Recognition that our economy would not function without these groups has been a long time coming. The next step is recognition that their pay and terms and conditions should reflect the pivotal role they perform.
This period of reflection that the pandemic has produced holds the potential to open up a public conversation and policy agenda that could transform the future world of work for the better. However, as the UK moves from massive state stimulus to inevitable austerity, overdue corrections to pay and conditions will not automatically fall into workers’ laps. It is only via collective struggle and demands from a position of public support and industrial strength that workers will be able to win the gains they are rightly owed when peace arrives.
For the next issue of Futures of Work, we invite contributions that address COVID-19 and any of the implications covered here as well as any other connections between COVID-19 and the world of work and employment. Please email the editors to discuss proposals. firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credit: Katie Bales