Coronavirus has transformed the lives of people across the UK and much of the world. Responding to the health crisis has required significant restrictions on everyday life, and dramatic economic measures from the government. The impact of the virus has been compounded by the fragility of our health and social care services and by pre-existing inequalities in living and working conditions.
Significant flaws in how our economy is organised have been exposed by the crisis and addressing these will be key to rebuilding a stronger and fairer post-virus economy with greater resilience for the future.
The response to the crisis has been educative. The government’s interventions show the speed and scale of what can be done when necessary; the same commitment and urgency must now be applied to addressing the threat of climate change. The ‘Everyone In’ programme that brought homeless people off the streets in a matter of days shows that homelessness is not inevitable – and that political will can solve seemingly intractable social problems. The changes that people have made in their lives during lockdown have demonstrated the UK’s adaptability and resilience - vital components in the creation of a fairer and more sustainable economy. The mutual aid groups that sprang up spontaneously across the country remind us of our interdependence, and that people want to help and support one another. These are the values that should govern our economic relationships.
The crisis has put the world of work centre stage and shown who really keeps the country going. It is the labour of working people that creates the goods and services that people need. The commitment of health, social care, transport, food and other essential workers to keep working while others stay at home has been inspirational. And it has exposed the poor pay and insecurity of many workers in essential services – despite the vital economic and social value they create. It is time to reassess the value placed on different jobs and recognise the inter-dependency that characterises every workplace and our society more broadly. Building back better means delivering a pay rise for all low paid workers and addressing the discrimination and insecurity that many face.
The scale and depth of existing inequalities have been starkly exposed. The fact that Black and minority ethnic (BME) people are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, have poorer health outcomes and be concentrated in insecure work where they have access to far fewer employment rights is well documented. However, the Covid-19 crisis has shown us that this inequality not only limits Black people’s life opportunities but also contributes to prematurely ending their lives. Most carers are women, whether paid or unpaid, making up around four out of five of those working in health and social care and doing three times more unpaid care than men. Imbalances in caring have been increased by the closure of schools and childcare settings, with women balancing paid work, childcare and caring for extended family. In recovery, we need renewed commitment and action to address systemic discrimination and inequality or we risk not only further reinforcing entrenched inequality but also reversing the gains of previous decades.
Addressing the indignity of low pay and the scourge of insecurity and inequality requires more than legal reform; it requires a new approach to how our economy is organised. We need new business models based on employment relationships that promote dignity, fair pay and voice at work, and an end to business models based on fragmented employment relationships, low pay and insecurity. This will require corporate governance reform to promote workforce voice in company decision-making and changes to the rules governing company purpose to create companies focussed on long-term, sustainable success, shared by all their stakeholders.
The importance of unions in expressing the collective voice and interests of working people has never been clearer. As the crisis has demonstrated the centrality of everyday work and everyday workers to our economy, so it has shown why workers must be properly represented in decisions about how work and our economic system is organised. Unions worked with government to deliver the job retention scheme that saved millions of jobs – and negotiated with employers to use it rather than making redundancies. We fought for strong rules on safe workplaces, and co-operated with employers on new ways of working to allow businesses to adapt and survive. Working people have voted with their feet, joining unions in large numbers throughout the crisis. The government must continue to work constructively with working people through their unions, and with employers, for a sustainable recovery in which all working people can prosper.
Our economy is truly global in nature: investment, goods, services and people cross national borders every day in increasingly complex and varied pathways. The rules that govern our international systems for trade and finance often act to damage the interests of poorer countries and make it harder for working people across the world to be paid fairly for their labour, driving down regulatory standards and working conditions, increasing precarious work and undermining public services. Working people must be engaged in the process of developing international global rules and institutions that support universal human and labour rights and ensure a Just Transition. In building back a better country, we must also play our part in building back a better world.
We entered this crisis with a fragile safety net and public services damaged by years of austerity – and this undermined our preparedness for the challenge of coronavirus. There is now an unanswerable case for a new settlement for public services, with adequate funding, public provision and a public service ethos at its heart. Even in the most optimistic scenario, there is a bumpy ride ahead and it is essential that our safety net is strengthened so it can offer security and safety to all who need it in the times ahead. As a society, we are only as strong as our weakest member.
Coming out of the crisis successfully will require more than stemming the rates of Covid-19 infection, and ensuring that people can return to work safely, important though this is. The UK is entering the deepest recession for decades. Without government action, unemployment will rise to levels not seen for 30 years. Already there are siren voices calling for a return to austerity, but the last decade shows the failure of austerity in its own terms. It repeatedly did not deliver economic growth or reduce national debt, while creating a weakened economic and social fabric exploited in deadly fashion by the virus.
Instead, by creating a fairer society, we will build a stronger economy, in which decent wages create both security for workers and their families, and demand for the products and services of our businesses. The way to do this is through everyone having a decent job, on better pay and working conditions, alongside revitalised public services and a stronger safety net. We must invest in this fairer future; we cannot afford not to.
People are the heart of our economy. Let’s choose a recovery built around their work, their needs, their health, and their dreams.