The emerging Covid-19 public health crisis has triggered a prolonged economic crisis quite like no other, posing widespread threats and challenges to workers, carers and households throughout the UK. In order to explore various aspects of how this impacts different communities, Common Wealth has launched a series of interviews with activists and campaigners.  

One of the most unexpected and far-reaching policies to emerge out of the Covid-19 public health crisis in the UK has been the UK government’s adoption of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which was developed in large part through a collaboration with the Trades Union Congress (TUC). At its core the Job Retention Scheme shields workers from layoffs by subsidising 80 percent of employer’s wage payments. Common Wealth spoke with Kate Bell, the TUC’s Head of the Rights, International, Social and Economics department, to hear more about the scheme, it’s limitations, and what policy the TUC would like to see put in place to create more resilient employment protections going forward.

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COMMON WEALTH: This crisis has created a lot of uncertainty and insecurity, but at the same time it's exposed these long-standing weaknesses in the economy that predate the public health emergency. How do you think that structural inequalities are shaping how the crisis has unfolded?  

KATE BELL: I think what we're seeing at the moment is really clear exposure of those fault lines. I'm a bit anxious about talking too far into the future because I just don't think we know what's going to happen. But three big things I think we've seen exposed:  

One, I think, is the structure of our labour markets and insecure contracts. A number of complex, false self-employment schemes, as well as long and complicated supply chains not only mean people are exposed to a greater level of risk but also that when the government tries to design programmes to help people, they're significantly more complicated to do. If you look at some of the Job Retention Scheme, it's really clear that it wants to support people on zero-hours contracts, it wants to support agency workers, but it's more complicated to do so. You've also seen with the scheme around self-employment, lots of those intermediary arrangements are being exposed. You hear from people that are on multiple contracts, no one will say they're the full employer, but the workers are not strictly self-employed, so they're finding it hard to access the self-employed scheme. We've had this complex system set up with basically long-term attempts by employers to shift the risk onto workers, to shift the responsibility of workers onto somebody else. That's being exposed like never before during this crisis.  

You're also just seeing how much we undervalue absolutely vital roles. You've seen that on the one hand in the attitude of some major employers (for example Wetherspoons), saying "we're laying off all our staff at the drop of the hat." It's been interesting to see the public outrage and shock at those attitudes. But those workers were living with that attitude from their employer day to day long before the crisis. We've also seen how those workers have become underpaid and undervalued. Probably social care work is one of the most obvious ways that has been exposed. People doing completely vital work, caring for our loved ones, putting themselves at risk and being paid the minimum wage, or not even that, due to the widespread lack of enforcement.  

We've also seen long-term holes in our safety net, in our public capabilities. You can see that as a consequence of austerity. It's not like our safety net was perfect before austerity, but some elements of it were working slightly better. I think it’s been kind of interesting to hear people say, "oh my god, £94/week for sick pay!" Well until two weeks ago that was £20 more than you'd get if you were on Universal Credit, and you're seeing people reliant on £94 in Universal Credit. We've also seen the capacity of the state to act hollowed out by austerity. I take the government in good faith when it comes to Universal Credit claims, they're trying to process them, we know they've been working with unions to redeploy people to get those claims met. But it comes after several years of closing job centres, closing HMRC contact centres, and I think across the public sector that's what we've seen. The hollowing out of local authorities, for example, I think there are huge challenges at the moment. What is it, about 40% cut in their funding over the last decade? It's horrific. We're seeing a public health emergency, and huge amounts of pain and hardship forcing us to confront those holes in our safety net and in our public provision.

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COMMON WEALTH: There have been some important steps from the government, as you mentioned, like the Job Retention Scheme. What do you think they've gotten right? And what would you like to see more of in terms of government intervention?  

KATE BELL: We would've liked them to act quicker, but the Job Retention Scheme is a very important step. Of course they're common across Europe, these kinds of schemes, but it's new in the UK, and it's really important, including the extension of it to support self-employed people. One thing we'd like to see is employers taking that up and recognising the best thing to do is to keep their staff on, to keep them on their wages. That's really important.  

I was just working on our next report, about what we want to see happen going forward. Just in terms of the Job Retention Scheme, it's really important that it's flex, so it can support short-time working as well. And we're looking for a bit more clarity for making clear it can support parents who are not able to work because they need to meet childcare responsibilities. [Post interview note: according to the TUC, the Government has now provided clarity on this point]

But I think what’s particularly important is that the Chancellor said that the Scheme wasn't time limited and that it wasn't cash limited. The doing-whatever-it-takes message is vitally important. In terms of next steps, the sick pay system – we still don't think we've seen the reforms that we need. We went into the beginning stages, when it became clear there would be public health impacts, arguing for urgent reforms to the sick pay system. We said there are three things that need to happen. We said you need to be paid from day one, and that's now happened. That's welcomed. But the other two things we said were around, firstly, the eligibility for full statutory sick pay. There are still 2 million people missing out on it because they earn too little. There's still an urgent need to up the level of support we get through the sick pay system. And the third one is the miserly levels of support for the social security system, which is very, very exposed. We need quick action. Unfortunately some people are going to lose their jobs, and we hope as many people will be kept in them as possible through the Job Retention Scheme, but we've already seen an increase in Universal Credit claims. We think the basic amount for Universal Credit needs to be increased.

COMMON WEALTH: Stepping back a bit, with the TUC playing this pivotal role in securing these employment measures, what do you envisage in terms of a new partnership between unions, employers and the state that might emerge out of this crisis?  

KATE BELL: I think unions have been able to really show their value during this time. It's been really important that the issues we've been hearing around the need to protect jobs, the need to protect workers' health and safety, have been able to actually get into the top levels of government. We've been able to show that when government actually consults unions we can get things done. These are the kind of arrangements we've been calling for a long, long time. We've called for example for government to have a tripartite commission on technology in the workplace, which is still a huge challenge. We think these are the kind of arrangements where we've got workers' voices really clearly in the room if we're to deal with a just transition to a lower-carbon future, a zero-carbon future even. We would hope that government does see the value of working with unions. And of course we have criticisms of what the government has done, and we will continue to do so. But it has shown the ability of unions, employers, and government to come together and actually deliver things swiftly and with the urgency that's needed during this time.  

I think the other thing that has been vitally important is that it's not just the TUC going in to talk to the treasury, but workers actually having those protections – and bargaining structures – in workplaces. We're hearing from workers who are scared to raise the really clear health and safety issues in their workplace around the lack of social distancing measures, because there are no protections, and they fear the risk of being dismissed for speaking up. I think that again, like never before, there's a real need for collective voice in workplaces so that workers can actually raise the issues that are bothering them and that they actually have the most experience dealing with. Those tripartite structures are really important, but the workplace, on-the-ground experience of frontline workers, knowing someone has their back, is vitally important.

COMMON WEALTH: I wanted to go back to the topic of care work. There are these fault lines when it comes to childcare for those working from home, social care services, and health care. What would be your hope for how we understand care work in the future, and how do you think unions can play a part in that?  

KATE BELL: It's vital to call for better-paying conditions, particularly in social care work, but also the wider care workforce. I'm thinking in my head about my feminist practice and how you differentiate paid and unpaid care work [laughs], it's complicated. Let's take the existing paid care workforce, which is vital. Unions have been calling for a better valuing, better pay, and an actual workforce strategy for that workforce. Those collective arrangements, like those you did see in the NHS, where there's a clearly negotiated set of pay and training progression loops that have been negotiated with the workforce. It's ridiculous that we don't have that in the social care system. If there was an opportunity to see the value of that, I think it's now.

I guess the wider point is around valuing care work and unpaid care work, again, a lot of that work is being made visible, and literally visible with children walking into conference calls etc, I think reminding us of the need to recognise that labour. Around the distribution of that labour in households, it's interesting to see what trends come out of this, basically. And also in some ways it's an opportunity to make the invisible, visible, showing to employers that people have other commitments. And employers have been able to provide significantly more flexibility, to see how work fits alongside those. It's clearly something to build on for the future.  

COMMON WEALTH: I wanted to ask you about the increase of employee monitoring. Especially for people working at home, employee monitoring software has been on the rise. What should workers know about employee monitoring and working from home conditions?  

KATE BELL: We'd been doing some work on this, before this all kicked off, thinking about the kind of protections that should be in place, thinking about the software that's being used by employers increasingly, and what those new trends are, and what unions' role is in trying to protect against those. I think it's more important than ever in this kind of present weird environment that employees are consulting people about the kind of employee monitoring systems they're putting in place. We think it's clear the workforce should have a right to say "yes" or "no" when it comes to those forms of surveillance. I think another interesting question for the longer-term is how our relationship with technology changes during this time.

But I think it's important to remember that not everyone is working from home. There are still lots of people going to work. One of the things we're worried about is that the conversation forgets them. There are lots of people still on the front lines. But for those of us who are lucky enough to work from home, technology has been both a lifeline and something we're conscious of in terms of the blurred boundaries. I think those blurred boundaries we were already seeing being raised as a significant issue – this idea that you're not constantly available to your employer. I think that's a conversation we're going to want to continue in the coming months.  

COMMON WEALTH: What measures that have been introduced as temporary reliefs would you like to see maintained in a post-crisis future?  

KATE BELL: Definitely a form of the Job Retention Scheme that enables companies to sustain short term working and temporary layoffs. As I said, it's already common across Europe and that's how they've been able to get those schemes up and running much more quickly. It's vital that that's maintained. Also, the need for increased payments through social security, at least it's gone up by twenty quid [laughs], which is actually in no way enough, but I'd rather have my social security payment be £94 rather than £73. At the absolute minimum, I know that sounds very unambitious and we are ambitious for much more, but you really hope that that would be maintained.  

We've talked a bit about the engagement between union and government and I hope everyone is seeing the value of that. It's probably too early to say but seeing some indication that union membership is going up, as people realise the value as well. But I think the thing we'd really hope to see is the recognition of how our insecure, fractured labour market just isn't a model that works for anybody. And how much we've underpaid and undervalued people that are doing absolutely vital roles.

COMMON WEALTH: What should be the demands of the labour movement to ensure that jobs can withstand these sort of crises in the future? What are the demands that would help us create a more resilient system?  

KATE BELL: I think a better-coordinated labour market. We've been talking about stronger provisions for sectoral-level bargaining, stronger provisions for bargaining at a company level. That kind of infrastructure actually does make labour markets much more resilient. There are now not just trade unions saying that but the OECD, not a famously left-wing organisation, who have been talking about how better-organised labour markets are more resilient.  

I think we've seen the fragility of the UK's long and complex supply chains exposed like never before. You see that with a complex supply chain in terms of supermarket delivery. But even within that complex supply chain, there are complex employment relationships. In a way simplifying the employment relationship and also thinking about insourcing or shortening supply chains, one thing we've called for 3 years ago, in spring 2017, and have continued to push, is this idea of Joint and Several Liability, which is basically the idea that the head of a supply chain should have the responsibility for the rights of workers throughout that supply chain. I think that would be one way to prevent businesses reducing the cost by shifting the risk of employment costs ever further down the supply chain.

COMMON WEALTH: What's something unexpected that the crisis has taught us about workers’ rights?  

KATE BELL I suppose the idea that things can change. To be honest when we put out our call for the Job Retention Scheme I'm not sure we thought it would be in place a week later. I think partially because of austerity and partially because of Brexit paralysis, consciously or not we'd lost our faith in the ability of the state working with social partners to actually do things. And I think despite all the flaws in that model, all the things that still need to be done, we've shown an ability to change things really, really fast, and it's important we hold on to that memory, to show that actually, we can act. There are dangers of being too rosy about the crisis – it is a crisis, it's awful – but there were many crises for people happening every day before now, and I think we've remembered that we can tackle some of those challenges. And that's really important.

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