Under cover of Covid, British workers’ rights are being quietly stripped away | Polly Toynbee
There will be no end-of-lockdown bank holiday, as the prime minister says people have had enough “days off” and must get “back into the office” immediately. That shows how remotely Boris Johnson works and thinks. “Days off” is not how most would describe their pandemic year.
Parents working from home struggled to hold down a job while home-schooling, with no on-off switch for working time. Those forced to go out to work, especially the low paid, took risks that saw many infected. Covid deepened the economic divide, with poorer earners falling into debt while the high paid amassed monumental savings. Over 60% of business leaders were personally “thriving”, while over half the workforce felt over-worked, according to the Work Trend Index. Even young Goldman Sachs staff now call their treatment “abusive” – these golden “meritocracy” winners are protesting about their 95-hour weeks.
Amid all this, webcam surveillance for employers to spy on home workers is on the way, looking for breaches of rules, for staff “missing from desk” or “detecting an idle user”. The Amazon-style treatment of warehouse staff, or of time-bullied delivery drivers having to pee in bottles, is spreading to more workplaces. Care workers are told that their all-night shifts sleeping in with patients don’t deserve the minimum wage.
Though the screw tightens most on the lowest paid, the time-and-motion monitors are squeezing lives everywhere, even within companies who spout “our people are our strength” pieties. When the current furlough ends, unemployment will jump and employers’ power will ratchet up again.
All this pressure will register for some as higher efficiency. Britain’s traditional low productivity was bemoaned in 2012 by current cabinet members Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab who, somewhat unpatriotically, flagged up British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world”. But the productivity measurements in official use have built-in absurdities which mean, for example, that any cut in the number of nurses or teachers counts as higher productivity, regardless of the quality of work or service provided.
An accelerating anarchy has seized the world of work, where employers can nowadays do whatever they like. “Fire and rehire is spreading like wildfire,” says Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow secretary for employment rights, who notes wryly that he shadows nothing: tellingly, this government has no such ministry. “Precarious work has taken off in the last decade,” he says. Under the cloak of Covid, one in 10 workers face losing their jobs and being rehired on worse terms.
By the end of this week, British Gas may have sacked hundreds of long-serving boiler-servicing engineers for refusing longer hours and poorer terms and conditions, their employer tearing up contracts unilaterally. Even Tesco, making mega profits in the pandemic, is trying it on – stripping between £4,000 and £19,000 off staff wages, until a Scottish court last month imposed a temporary injunction. It is reported that working-class employees were “nearly twice as likely” to face fire and rehire as “those from higher socio-economic groups”. The words can be wonderfully evasive: Network Rail is “modernising” (ie levelling down) terms and conditions across all services.
Employers keep increasing their power. My old O-level history books taught of the onward march of working rights, with factory acts limiting hours, bringing safety, sickness pay and holidays. The European Union added the 48-hour limit. But in researching my book Hard Work, I found that, at the time, all employment agencies demanded that prospective staff sign away this limit: no signature, no job. Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, it still took Asda women six years for a court to allow them to compare their jobs to men’s in warehouses, and they still need to prove their jobs are of equal value.
What use are health and safety laws when there are so few inspections: there has not been one prosecution for virus outbreaks in supposedly “Covid safe” workplaces or packed fast-food kitchens. Uber drivers scored a courtroom triumph – proving they were entitled to workers’ rights – which has scared off Deliveroo investors. But why does applying the law rely on unions or on crowdfunded lawyers? Why did HMRC fail to enforce full national insurance payments from Uber and bogus self-employment companies? There are pathetically few minimum wage inspectors.
The long-delayed post-Brexit employment bill is promised for the Queen’s speech in May. Even if it doesn’t dare backslide from the rights workers had while in the EU, there’s little hope it will challenge the atrocious conditions so many people face. Labour’s McDonald says that nearly a third of workers are precariously employed – in the gig economy, on zero-hours jobs or as agency temps. With weekly earnings wildly variable, managers can silence objections by cutting anyone’s hours to zero on a whim.
We should judge the new bill by whether it brings in strong enforcement, which is currently spread between austerity-depleted agencies. Employees need legally binding minimum hours, and access to trade union recruiters. The signing-away of rights should be banned.
Good employers are demanding these enforceable rules against exploitation; otherwise they will be undercut by companies that duck fair pay and taxes. These are all basic rights that we thought trade unions had won long ago. Yet Britain is now back to On the Waterfront-style lump labour, the obedient hired by the hour at the boss’s whim.
In so many ways, the pandemic has exposed a country going backwards. We should ignore all government talk of “levelling up” until the pre-1980s basic rights won by workers have been restored.