The outbreak of the worldwide Corona pandemic is deeply alarming for all workers across the UK and the world. Ten years of austerity have left our health and social care services at breaking point. We have also seen workers being made to pay for this crisis in the form of redundancies and forced time off work without pay. The truth is, the severity with which the crisis has hit the UK is ultimately down to choices made by governments and employers, both in the last weeks and long before the pandemic.
I have worked in social care for thirty years and, like many of my colleagues, I am fearful of what may happen in the coming days, weeks and months. The crisis created by the Covid-19 virus has highlighted more than ever the need for a National Care Service making social care universally available to all.
With an estimated 170,000 vacancies in the sector and 300,000 plus on zero-hour contracts, the pressure on those providing the care has never been greater. Many of these workers will be under enormous pressure to come on shift and do extra hours. Many will have to make the difficult choice between feeding their families and working even if they have symptoms or self-isolating with just £94 per week of statutory sick pay.
The social care sector was already at breaking point in England before this outbreak. Only state intervention on an unprecedented scale can provide the support needed for vulnerable people in our society at this time of national crisis.
For ten years social care services have also been put under extreme pressure due to the Tories’ systematic running down of the NHS. The shortages of intensive care beds and ventilators, chronic levels of understaffing and an overworked workforce are all down to political decisions taken by successive Tory governments.
This is why it was with huge disappointment that I read Len McCluskey’s statement last Friday. The description of the measures taken by chancellor Rishi Sunak as “historic, bold and necessary” will not chime with the experiences of workers who are anxious about their jobs and futures. This statement is not unique among trade union leaders. We have seen similar statements from many such figures over the past weeks. Francis O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said “This is a breakthrough. Rishi Sunak has shown real leadership”. It reflects a mistaken view that the Covid-19 means that the interests of workers and bosses are now the same. Even some left union leaders like Len McCluskey seem to be making this mistake.
Yes, it is a step forward that the government is offering to meet 80% of wages of workers forced into isolation. But it will still leave many workers short of the money they need to get by. We have also seen employers use the lack of existing legal protection for workers to lay off staff and cut people’s hours to protect their own profits during this time of hardship – at the expense of the rest of us.
In the construction industry, for example, the union has rightly attacked the government for failing to extend this emergency pay scheme to thousands of bricklayers, electricians and plumbers. This is because they are technically ‘self-employed’ – a status the union rightly calls bogus. None of Sunak’s “bold” leadership there.
Len McCluskey finishes by saying that “the chancellor has done the right thing and we look forward to working with him in the coming days to get the money into the hands of those most in need”. Working-class people, including Unite members, will be highly suspicious of a trade union general secretary who says they will work with a Tory government.
The experience in my branch has been very different. We have found that it was by taking action that we protected the interests of workers at this time – not by cosying up to the Tories. Bin workers in Bexley working for Serco had to take strike action in order to win full pay if they are unable to go to work as a result of the Corona pandemic. Laws and provisions from Tory governments afforded no protection. It was only by organising and mobilising our collective strength that we got results.
In Salford, the council has conceded to the unions’ demand that all outsourced frontline care workers receive full pay for Covid-19 related absences. These are the issues Unite needs to be taking up.
We all support measures to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. However, we cannot trust a Tory government to act in the interests of working-class people. Some of the measures being pushed do have implications for the economic interests and democratic rights of workers. And, so far, they have been subject to very little scrutiny and democratic oversight. It is our unions which must step in and ensure the voices of workers are heard.
Far from working with the Tories, now is the time, more than ever, that unions need to assert the rights of workers most vociferously. I hope our general secretary rethinks the approach outlined in Friday’s statement. The message to the Tory’s and the bosses must be clear – working-class people will not pay for this crisis.