Over the past weeks, Coronavirus chaos has swept through Britain. Public events have been cancelled, stock markets are in freefall and panic buying has set in across the country. Meanwhile for many workers – especially those in hospitality – it is business as usual, apparently.
With many non-essential services closing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the hospitality industry stands as an exception. Pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels are staying open despite the industry being particularly at risk of spreading the virus. Dozens of people confined in small spaces, exchanging physical cash and direct handling of food and drink – these are all fundamental aspects of this sector. Many hospitality workers have found themselves wondering when we will join the other workplaces closing their doors.
The government understands the dangers of these businesses remaining open, but they are caught in a contradiction between the need to contain the pandemic, and a desire to keep the economy running in order to lessen the impact of the incoming economic crisis. A shutdown of the hospitality industry, which represents almost 4% of GDP, would have a serious impact. As such, the official guidance released this week has been for the public to avoid pubs, clubs and restaurants. At the same time, Boris Johnson has refused to close these places down.
The result is the worst of both worlds. Whilst, in the immediate future, many businesses will continue to serve the public – undoubtedly leading to further infections – the significantly decreased footfall could have disastrous effects in the short term, with many facing immediate financial difficulties and workers facing lost hours or unemployment.
This week, hospitality workers will have seen empty seats and cancelled shifts as the reality of the situation sets in. Our employers will not be able to afford to keep their doors open, and staff are already finding themselves effectively without work.
Businesses bailed out
As a result of backlash against this strategy, the government has been forced to announce measures including a £330 billion loan package as a temporary lifeline for businesses. These loans, to be paid back with interest at a later stage, will not solve the crisis facing hospitality in the long-run.
But where does all this leave the workers? Despite the big numbers, this package is most notable for the glaring absence of any sort of measures to provide for staff. All the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak could offer was vague words around working with the unions for better employment support.
Last week, the government promised to introduce Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from day 1 for workers off sick. However, at £94.25 per week, there is still enormous pressure to remain at work in order to meet the cost of living, even if sick.
Despite the bailout, customers opting to remain at home – not to mention a new recession – means the pressures on hospitality will likely continue. For many workers, especially those on zero-hour contracts, the government’s measures will do little to dispel fears of incoming lay-offs.
The recent example of Ireland, where over 340,000 workers have lost their jobs – largely in hospitality – is a stark warning to British workers. There is an urgent need to get organised and for the Trade Unions to launch a fightback against the threat of mass unemployment.
Workers need a bailout of their own
Boris Johnson’s government has proven that it is incapable of offering a genuine solution to this crisis. As a result of their inaction, potentially millions of jobs, and thousands of workers’ lives have been put at risk. For the working class families set to be devastated by these events, figures like 20,000 deaths will not be seen as a ‘good outcome’. We should have no faith in the current government to decide what measures are necessary during this outbreak. Instead, democratic committees of trade unions and communities should make recommendations themselves.
Socialist Alternative calls for the closure of all non-essential workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, workers should not be made to pay for this crisis – one that has been caused by capitalist governments prioritising business-friendly conditions over human lives. We fight for full pay for all those off work, whether due to workplace closures or sickness, and against all job losses as a result of such measures. Firms pleading poverty must open their books to public scrutiny. To compensate for lost income, grants should be provided to small businesses. Big companies threatening layoffs must be taken into democratic public ownership.
From the outset, COVID-19 has shown itself to be a symptom of a wider problem – a rotten capitalist system falling into a deep crisis. That is why we stand for an end to capitalist rule and the domination of the market. We fight for a socialist society based on democratic planning of the economy. On that basis, we would be able shut down the workplaces without threatening the economy or people’s jobs.