By Dr Katie Bales, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School)
The current COVID19 crisis has shone a light on the world of work by interrupting the supply and demand necessary for global capitalism to function. In the UK context, it has drawn attention to the inadequacies of our current employment rights framework; the ways in which certain types of work is insecure and de-valued; the racialised, gendered and classed boundaries of some ‘front-line’ jobs; the vast power disparities between employers and employees; and called into question the necessity of office work, or indeed a 5 day working week.
Perhaps then this period of reflection might open up new perspectives and ideas amongst the public which could radically transform the future world of work, pushing forwards positive change which forefronts worker protection, adequate remuneration, recognition, work-life balance and interests outside of traditional ‘work’ under industrial capitalism. Below, I outline some of the areas in which these changes should take place.
Deep inequalities at the frontline
Whilst many middle-class workers remain at home to protect themselves from the virus, large swathes of those with insecure and low paid employment are at the ‘front line’ of the corona outbreak on grounds that the country could not function without them. Nursery workers, supermarket attendants, delivery drivers, refuse collectors, carers and cleaners are putting themselves at risk, with no protective equipment, for meagre ‘poverty’ wages close to the national minimum wage of £8.72 per hour. Recognition that our economy would not function without these groups is long overdue and their pay should reflect that. However, there are obvious disparities amongst class, race and gender lines when we look at who these people are and the protection they are afforded (84% of carers are women, for example). 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. This will only materialise via collective demands and solidarity forged amongst the public.
The inadequacies of the employment framework
As a result of the virus, a spotlight has also been placed upon the labyrinth which is employment status in the UK. Different rights such as sick pay, redundancy and unfair dismissal attach to the different statuses of ‘employee’, ‘worker’ and ‘independent contractor’ i.e. the self-employed. Many of these rights are also dependent on the amount of time individuals have worked for their employers. ‘Self-employed’ persons, including Deliveroo riders, stand to suffer the greatest losses as they are not entitled to basic rights such as statutory sick pay or redundancy payments. 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. Similarly, precarious workers such as those on zero-hour contracts lack security as they have no guaranteed hours or monthly income, which instead is determined by the market. As working hours are reduced to nil, many will be left without income to pay their rent, mortgages and bills and they are unlikely to have accrued the length of service needed to engage rights relating to dismissal or redundancy.
To combat these issues, the Government announced a COVID19 Self Employment Income Support Scheme which will allow the self-employed to claim a taxable grant worth 80% of their trading profits up to a maximum of £2500.00 per month over the next three months. This only applies to those who have submitted an Income Tax Self-Assessment return for the tax year 2018-19 which 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. The Government has also created a Job Retention Scheme for workers and employees on ‘furlough’ – which means that workers remain on the books without performing work (and without pay). However, access to this scheme is dependent on businesses remaining afloat and employers agreeing to ‘furlough’ staff rather than dismissing them. Although dismissal may seem harsh in these circumstances, under the common law an employer can dismiss an employee on notice for any reason. Claims to unfair dismissal can also only be made by ‘employees’ with two years continuous service meaning many workers and short-term employees will be left vulnerable and without a remedy. As large numbers of people begin to realise that workers have very few rights in the UK, it is hoped that there will be increased public scrutiny of the employment status framework and recognition that workers’ rights have been eroded due to centre right Governments that prioritise the market over the wellbeing of the workforce.
Those who fall through the net of the employment framework and the Government’s COVID19 schemes will be expected to access the defective Universal Credit scheme which provides £317.82 per household per month. For those workers who sadly develop COVID19 or its related symptoms, they will have to rely on statutory sick pay at a rate of £94.25 per week. The realisation that these amounts are inadequate for most people to survive on within our modern economy is beginning to dawn on the general population.
Power dynamics and the need for ‘compassionate’ leadership
As many have noted, the COVID19 crisis brings out the best and the worst of humanity. This is evident in the demands of corporations to be recognised as ‘essential service providers’, including Mike Ashley who claims to be ‘deeply apologetic’ for arguing that Sports Direct is an essential service (rendering it necessary to remain open and put staff members health and lives at risk). The power imbalance between employers and workers has never been so apparent, as has the lack of protection afforded to workers who refuse to work as a result of poor health and safety measures. Though sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 provide protection from ‘detrimental treatment’ and/or ‘unfair dismissal’ for refusal of work due to health and safety, these rights are only enjoyed by ‘employees’. 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’.
‘Work’ outside of industrial capitalism
For those fortunate enough to be able to work from home, this period has not meant the erasure of work completely, but rather, ‘the valorization of human activities which have escaped from labour’s domination’. The work of Kathi Weeks is instructive here, who reminds us that it is possible to be creative outside the boundaries of work, to find pleasures outside of work and experience the variety the world has to offer. In some ways the COVID19 pandemic has also forced many of us to realign our daily routines which has led to reconnection with friends, family and nature; the development of new skills and practices; the absorption of new knowledge; and the realisation that we could radically reorganise our working lives to better facilitate these activities.
COVID19 and the future of work
The COVID19 pandemic has challenged the fundamental ways in which our working lives are organised and the legal structures that govern our employment relationships. As noted by Bogg and Ford, the COVID19 measures introduced by the UK Government are some ‘of the most remarkable announcements made in the history of peacetime labour law’, yet in many ways they do not go far enough in protecting low paid, short term and precarious workers.
It is said that solidarity is often evoked or displayed in the wake of an exceptional event such as armed conflict or natural disaster. In such instances even those that profess their indifference to their communities are likely to discover a sense of collective identity, as their well-being is closely tied to that of society more generally. It is hoped that in the wake of COVID19 a collective solidarity is forged to rectify the gaps in worker protection highlighted by the pandemic. Increased protection in both the short and long term is needed, and a radical restructuring of the ways in which we attach value to certain forms of work remains long overdue.