England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

‘The Great Resignation’: Britain’s labour shortage and why we need collective action to win better wages

Labour shortage, worker resigns

Following a year of lockdowns, all sectors are facing acute labour shortages. Between July and September, job vacancies climbed over one million for the first time in UK history, reaching 1,102,000 — an increase of 318,000 from January to March 2020. A study from Microsoft, published in March, found that 41% of employees worldwide are planning to leave their current role in the next year. 28% of those who left a job this year did so without having another lined up. Workers have had enough of poor conditions, long hours, and low wages, and are no longer happy to stay in workplaces that exploit them so blatantly.

Labour shortage

This, of course, is true to the industries where we all feel the impact of the shortage, such as the hospitality, retail, healthcare, haulage and service sectors. Hospitals have a nearly 10% vacancy rate for registered nurses, and recruiting and onboarding a new nurse takes an average of 89 days, while one in five hospitality workers have left the industry during the pandemic. From April to June 2021, there was a rise of 12.1% in hospitality vacancies compared to the same period in 2019. The sector is known for horrendous conditions, zero-hour contracts, minimum unlivable wages, long shifts, and uncertainty regarding working hours. So it is no wonder why, when you add the risk of COVID infection to the mix, some workers are not willing to go back into work.

What’s more, workers now know that leaving their job doesn’t always mean immediately becoming worse off. With the serious labour shortages, many can walk straight into a new job, which has empowered them to face their bosses and demand that their rights are respected, or threaten to leave. Although this is mostly being done on an individual level for now, it is a potential first step in developing a working-class consciousness that can evolve into a drive for unionisation, strikes and industrial action.


Interestingly, these sectors are not alone in this trend. In fact, so many workers are leaving their jobs or contemplating their departure that some in the capitalist class have dubbed it ‘The Great Resignation’. The fact is, both blue-collar and white-collar jobs are being massively impacted, and the ruling class is shaking in its boots.

The UK banking industry, for example, has seen an exodus of 70% of its junior staff. This adds to the problems arising from the employment of tens of thousands of low-paid call centre and service workers in the neocolonial world — and especially in India — that is suffering from COVID uncertainty on a much broader scale than Britain. 55% of 18-34 year old tech workers in the UK and Ireland are planning to leave their role in the next six to twelve months, with an estimated cost of £17 billion to businesses

However, while in some sectors with extreme shortages jobs are now being advertised at higher rates of pay, the capitalist class is loath to increase wages, reduce hours, or provide better conditions. They want to have their cake and eat it — be able to hire enough employees on the same basis as before. So they are using their powers to clamp down on furloughs and conducting a blame campaign against so-called ‘lazy’ workers. Hypocritically, having consciously stirred up racism and xenophobia in an attempt to divide workers, they are also demanding emergency relaxations to visa restrictions in order to widen the pool of potential low-paid workers. Anything but raising wages.

Miserly bosses

The situation is even more absurd when you take a look at the mainstream media. According to the bosses, what workers are looking for is more flexibility and the option to work remotely; clear and transparent career progression; recruitment processes that are led by creating an accepting and pleasant ‘company culture’; or, even worse, as phrased by the World Economic Forum, “marketing and human resources departments have to work together to build the brand and uphold its values consistently across the company” to avoid staff turnover. In other words, make sure you brand yourself with the right ‘mission’, maybe donate some money to BLM or send your workers to volunteer in a soup kitchen, perhaps commit to a plastic-free office kitchen, and your employees will stay. After all, all they want is to feel like their workplace supports the causes that are important to them. Right?

Wrong. While the bourgeoisie are somewhat correct to identify that a year of lockdowns brought on a new level of self-reflection for workers, and it is also true that many are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives and finding none at their job due to the deeply alienating nature of the labour market under capitalism, what workers want is not some half-arsed lip-service from their bosses for ‘diversity and inclusion’ or a ‘corporate social responsibility’ programme. We don’t want more free drinks or pizza parties. We want to be able to live our lives not worried about putting food on the table or a roof over our heads, while still having the time and energy to spend time with our families and friends, participate in social events, and practise our hobbies. We don’t want to be enslaved to our jobs, whether the company we work for donates to UNICEF or not.

Unionsation potential

But, even in these extremely difficult and unprecedented circumstances for the ruling class, they are still not willing to increase wages or reduce hours. This is because workers have yet to unionise on a mass basis against these conditions, and instead are in some cases  taking individual action by leaving their jobs. But the only way to win the victories the working class needs is to rely on our collective power.

For four years in a row, unionisation in the UK is on the rise, currently standing at 6.6 million. This is a great trend, and should be utilised by the unions and further built upon. With two of the biggest trade unions, Unite and Unison, now with a newly elected left general secretary and NEC respectively, there is a real opportunity to show workers on a national and international level how unionisation, strikes and a fighting programme can win tangible victories. Understanding the power we have as workers is important — but this has to be progressed further to understanding the need to organise collectively to fight the bosses who have shown they aren’t willing to give in without a real fight.


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