How Newham is fighting back against insecure work with the country’s first Employment Rights Hub

Insecure workers were afraid to self-isolate with Covid-19 in case they lost their job. Now, a local Council is fighting the tide of precarious work.

12 Sep 2021| News

Earlier this year, as we worked to continue to support people through the impact of Covid-19, we discovered the shocking impact of insecure, unregulated work on lives and health during the pandemic. To better understand and respond, we asked residents what would most enable them to take the vital steps to protect themselves and others, crucially their ability to self-isolate. For many, the answer was simple but alarming: ‘A guarantee I won’t lose my job.’

The results of our research, undertaken in February, were stark: for 76% of people, it was the fear of losing wages and employment above all that was preventing them from staying safe and protecting those around them. The highest proportion who told us this were young people, aged 19 to 30, who are also most likely to be in insecure work. It is no surprise that after decades of erosion of employment rights there have been serious consequences, which undermine our ability to respond to the pandemic. People have been choosing between staying safe and putting food on the table. Yet there has been nothing in our national response to even acknowledge this, let alone tackle it. For this reason, here in Newham, we are taking action ourselves, as a local council, to do all we can to help people know and exercise the rights that they have.

for 76% of people, it was the fear of losing wages and employment above all that was preventing them from staying safe and protecting those around them

In June, we established a dedicated Employment Rights Hub, becoming the first local authority in the country to do so, to support residents to know their rights, access advice and organise. This had been part of my administration’s plan from the beginning, but the Covid-19 pandemic exposed why this was so important, just as it surfaced many other already existing issues of inequality and injustice.

When I was first elected as Mayor of Newham in 2018, it was evident that Newham’s local economy was not working for our people. Our residents felt the sharp end of a failed and inequitable economic approach, premised on the idea that a job alone was the route out of poverty. An epidemic of insecure work in Newham saw many residents facing significant in-work poverty, in particular in the retail and service sector. We discovered that a shocking 27% of residents were earning less than the national minimum wage, let alone the London living wage. We set out on a mission to fundamentally reshape our local economy, using community wealth building principles. Then when Covid-19 hit, poverty, inequality – and in particular race inequality – together with insecure work, overcrowded housing, the ’causes of causes’ as Professor Michael Marmot has called them, left Newham residents particularly affected and vulnerable. As a borough with the country’s most diverse population (73% of our residents are ethnic minorities) we also had the highest death rate from Covid-19 in May 2020.

This underlined the urgent need to act on insecure work. Our jobs and financial advice service, Our Newham, had already seen a huge increase in demand, including those accessing our emergency support. Our Employment Rights Hub seeks to reinforce that help that we provide, and will be part of efforts to change the nature of the work in our borough.  Following the launch of the hub in June, our three dedicated employments rights advisers are delivering workshops and offering direct one-to-one support to residents. We know that as lockdown measures ease and we face the end of furlough, there will be new fault lines in the fight for fair, well-paid and safe work. Newham has the highest furlough rate in London, and so our service is gearing up to support residents then, when it will be even more essential to know what their rights are.

We are proud to be the first local authority in the country to measure our success on the health, happiness and wellbeing of our residents

We know that whilst we respond to these immediate needs, we also need to reorientate the economy of our borough in the longer term. This means developing better work for the future, in particular green jobs, as part of our plans to tackle the Climate Emergency. This includes our mission to position Newham as the catalyst of London’s data sector and wider digital economy, bringing new high-skilled jobs to the borough. We are building on some significant achievements so far, including the Council becoming a London Living Wage employer and Unison Care Charter accredited, as well as bringing our parks and street cleansing services back in house, ensuring fair terms and conditions for those workers. Taking what we learned in dealing with the pandemic, our Covid-19 recovery strategy: ‘Towards a Better Newham: COVID-19 Recovery and Reorientation Strategy’ details our next steps. Central to this is changing our measures of what success looks like, and so we are proud to be the first local authority in the country to measure our success on the health, happiness and wellbeing of our residents.

Establishing the Employment Rights Hub and this work to reorientate our local economy has been a huge collective effort, across the council and working with people locally, to build on the foundations laid by trade union colleagues and organisations such as the IER. In turn, we are committed to sharing our learning as we go, and look forward to working together to make sure this forms part of a wider movement where Labour Councils in power are making a difference. We urgently need a change in national government and a reverse of the decades of attacks on rights at work. Until then, we will do all we can to show that there is an alternative.