Coronavirus has exposed the reality of precarious Britain

The coronavirus crisis has lifted the lid on Britain's economy and demonstrated the case for strong trade unions.

Commentary icon8 Apr 2020|Comment

Adrian Weir Author Photo
Adrian Weir

Assistant Secretary of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted, in great relief, the crisis of the deregulation of the labour market, as designed by the neoliberal project, and the exponential growth of the precarious sector. As I noted previously, one in ten UK workers now have precarious jobs — including in the so-called “gig” economy — that’s 3.2 million workers on zero hours, casual, bogus self-employed or temporary contracts. It’s for these workers that the unions are now pressing the government for urgent action on income protection.There has been an increased media focus in recent days on the construction sector. As Mark Harvey writes, bogus self-employment in construction is a deliberate policy pursed by employers. In fact, it can be traced back to the successful building workers’ strike of 1972.The Shrewsbury Campaign describes the outcome of the 1972 strike as “the largest single pay increase ever negotiated in the building industry”. “It was,” the campaign continues, “a magnificent victory for trade union organisation, against all odds… One of the least well-organised groups of workers had taken on their employers and won. The Conservative government and the employers did not let matters rest there.”For the employers, this meant a concerted effort to never again have directly employed (PAYE) workers on major construction sites. From that point onwards construction workers were forced into bogus self-employment schemes of various types which has meant that almost 50 years later on sites across London, and probably elsewhere, building workers are obliged to go to work, crammed together in site canteens or working in gangs in sites that are in all likelihood coronavirus hotspots.

As they are classified as self-employed, these workers are exempt from the government’s increasingly shaky coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. They have to keep working in order to get paid — and, therefore, are forced to put themselves at risk.

The rise of the precarious

The growth of the precarious sector would not have been possible had it not been for the framework of anti-union laws introduced under Thatcher and Major. The Conservatives may have spoken about the inequities of the closed shop or giving unions back to their members, but in reality, these laws had the deliberate purpose of undermining collective bargaining and unions’ representative function.

The legal shackling of unions and the diminution of their bargaining power was a move to restore to the one percent that which they had lost in the post-war period of social-democratic advance.

Through 1980s and ‘90s employers sought to minimise headcount and ensure that labour could be turned on and off like a tap according to demand. This led to the growth of agency working and zero-hours contracts, culminating in today’s gig economy where employers have transformed themselves into digital “platforms” and all their workers are so-called independent self-employed contractors.

Those on zero-hours contacts feel obliged to turn up for work whenever the phone rings and they get their instructions to do a shift. The “independent” union that represents gig workers, the IWGB, says it will sue the UK government because its 

“economic support measures “discriminate” against, and fail to provide proper support for, self-employed workers, women, minority groups, and those in the “gig economy”… the current policies are therefore “not only discriminatory” and “risk driving millions of workers into deeper poverty”, but also pose a serious threat to public health. This is because many self-employed workers, “are forced to continue working while sick or while they should be self-isolating in order to survive”…

Although the government has now announced a very limited package of income support with a long lead-in time for the self-employed, we have these further examples of precarious workers unwillingly creating a feedback loop to the coronavirus crisis.

This crisis may well engender profound changes in the world of work that we can’t yet imagine. The huge number of workers now working remotely may have permanent consequences; how will unions organise a vast army of home workers? How many of our employment and health and safety laws will be applied to working at home is also an unknown.

Building workers are obliged to go to work, crammed together in site canteens or working in gangs in sites that are, in all likelihood, coronavirus hotspots.

Changing the Rules

Whoever is declared the new Leader of the Labour Party tomorrow will have much to consider in terms of responding to coronavirus and the government’s evident mishandling of the emergency.

The immediate issues are PPE for healthcare and other frontline workers, testing for coronavirus and maintaining employment. But any Labour leader will need to also consider how the coronavirus crisis has exposed the dark underside of Britain’s labour market.

Fortunately, they need look not much further than Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos to find solutions to the problem. On zero-hours contracts Labour pledged to “ban zero-hours contracts — so that every worker gets a guaranteed number of hours each week” (2017) and “ban zero-hours contracts and strengthen the law so that those who work regular hours for more than 12 weeks will have a right to a regular contract reflecting those hours… requiring cancelled shifts to be paid and proper notice for changes in hours.” (2019)

Britain would, of course, not be the first country to ban zero-hour contract. The measure is long overdue. New Zealand has for some years banned zero-hours and in the Irish Republic legalisation has been passed to ensure that workers can access secure hours.

In its recent election campaigns, Labour also pledged to remove the anomalies in law that allow for workers having different rights according the hours worked. In 2017, the party committed to “give all workers equal rights from day one, whether part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent — so that working conditions are not driven down.” In 2019, it summarised this with a commitment to “give everyone full rights from day one on the job.”

In 2017 and 2019 Labour made clear and explicit promises on bogus self-employment:

“shifting the burden of proof, so that the law assumes a worker is an employee unless the employer can prove otherwise… banning payroll companies, sometimes known as umbrella companies, which create a false structure to limit employers’ tax liabilities and limit workers’ rights” (2017); and “ending bogus self-employment and creating a single status of ‘worker’ for everyone” (2019).

As Mark Harvey points out, “no other European country has anything approaching the level of self-employment in construction as the UK, with most under 15% while the UK is now over 60%, especially of manual workers. It is a British disease.”

Over and above providing protections for individual workers in difficult situations it is vital that Labour remains committed to restoring unions to a central role in industrial relations and worker representation.

In 2017, it said that “a Labour government will… empower workers and their trade unions — because we are stronger when we stand together … and roll out sectoral collective bargaining – because the most effective way to maintain good rights at work is collectively through a union.” In 2019, it was unequivocal: “we will roll out sectoral collective bargaining”

In the end, there is only one way to ensure that unions can operate properly and effectively. That is to repeal anti-union legislation. In 2019, the party made clear that this went beyond the 2016 Trade Union Act and would mean doing away with years of anti-union legislation to “create new rights and freedoms for trade unions.”

Labour has the tools to deal with labour market deregulation and restore stability and dignity to people’s working lives. With the coronavirus crisis, we now know how crucial that task truly is.

The political outcome of the coming months is hard to predict. Even an 80-seat majority is no guarantee for a government in the face of a historic crisis. Now is not the time to retreat from bold policies to empower our unions and improve the lives of workers.

This article first appeared in Tribune on 3rd April 2020

Adrian Weir

Adrian Weir Author Photo

Adrian Weir has a background in the engineering industry in Southampton where he was an AUEW lay representative (shop steward/safety... Read more »