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Committee statements for Disabled Workers Conference


The unequal impact of Covid-19 on disabled workers 

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a stark light on the deep and persistent structural inequalities which cut across our country.   

Working class families have been hit hardest by Covid-19, facing the greatest health risks and are on the front line of rising job losses.  

Millions of workers were forced to continue traveling into work right through the peak of the crisis, often doing vital work that remains underpaid and undervalued.  

We are proud of today’s diverse working class.  

We also know that within it, Black workers, women, disabled people and LGBT+ people have all been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis.   

However, we also must say what we know to be true. And we must be upfront with the facts the media and the government ignore or downplay.  

Government data has revealed that 6 in 10 of all deaths involving Covid-19 were disabled people. To date over 100,000 people have died that means over 60,000 disabled people have lost their lives.  

We have heard excuses and explanations. We have been told those who died were older people in care homes, we have been told those who died had serious underlying health conditions and we’ve been told they had learning disabilities. These excuses, they are unacceptable. What they are actually saying is that these lives matter less than others.  

The excuses do not mitigate the fact that many of those who have died did not have to. Make no mistake the government have badly botched the handling of the pandemic and disabled people have paid the price. They paid the price often with their lives when they did not have to.  

And we know the pandemic is having a negative impact on disabled people in work not just as a direct result of the virus but also because of its impact on the economy.  

The UK is in recession and all of the painful impacts disabled workers experienced in the 2008 recession are being repeated.  

In the 2008-2009 recession disabled employees were more likely than their non-disabled colleagues to experience negative changes to their terms and conditions and working practices, such as wage freezes, reduced overtime, and the reorganisation of work. Research following on from the 2008 recession has revealed that during economic upturns disabled people are the last to gain employment, and during downturns they are first to lose their jobs.  

Well, conference, we are in an economic downturn and government data is showing that disabled people are, once again, the first to be made redundant. Recent ONS data has shown that redundancy rates are 62% higher for disabled workers than their non-disabled peers.  

And conference the data from the last 9 to 12 months shows an ongoing downward trend in the number of disabled people in work. Those disabled people already faced significant barriers in getting and keeping jobs, as evidenced by the disability employment gap which stands at almost 30 percentage points.  

This is despite the government’s 2015 manifesto pledge to halve it. Although no time frame was set for this, at the time of the pledge the employment gap was 34 centage points, meaning that, far from halving, it has only shrunk by around one per cent a year since the government outlined its ambitions. 

And of course, disabled workers face double discrimination. Not only are they less likely to be in work, but when they are, they are paid less than their non-disabled peer. TUC research shows that disabled workers face a 20% pay gap, an increase from 2019. This is equivalent to earning £2.10 less an hour or £3,800 a year based on a 35 hour working week.  

Recent research found that two-fifths of employers say that they were discouraged from hiring disabled job applicants because of concerns around supporting them properly during the pandemic while a fifth (20 per cent) admitted they would be less likely overall to hire someone with a disability.1  

It also found that seven in 10 disabled workers (71 per cent) in were affected by the pandemic, either through a loss of income, being put on furlough or being made redundant.  

Research shows that disabled workers are all overrepresented in insecure work and are bearing a disproportionate burden in keeping the country running during the current crisis.  

They are working long hours to keep shelves stocked, hospitals clean and goods delivered to those who can’t leave their homes.  

But these workers, who are central to the welfare of so many, are forced to work without many of the most basic employment protections.  

Government must ban zero-hours contracts, tackle false self-employment, and guarantee all workers day-one employment rights. 

And they must bring in mandatory disability pay gap reporting.  

Now is the time for unions to remind employers of the fact that failure to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, including adjustments to redundancy criteria and procedures, is a form of unlawful discrimination. 

We must demand that government take steps to ensure that disabled people are not unlawfully targeted for redundancy and that those who want to work are appropriately supported to do so. 

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The unequal impact of Covid-19 on disabled people 

Conference, when we talk about the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of disabled people we must start with a statistic.  

6 in 10 of all deaths involving Covid-19 were disabled people.  

The government have told us that over 100,000 people have died, they were not as clear that 60,000 of those that died were disabled people.  

There are no excuses, the government have badly botched their handling of the pandemic and disabled people have paid the price., often with their lives.  

Government data has told us that; 

  • if you are disabled and male, you are 6.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than a man who is not disabled.  
  • If you are a disabled women, you are 11.3 times more likely to die from Covid-19 that a woman who is not disabled.  

This is the reality of the pandemic for disabled people.  

Yet, this is not the first time this governments policies have disproportionately impacted on disabled people.  

We know that even before the Covid19 crisis, benefit cuts and austerity hit disabled people the hardest.  

We know that changes to the welfare system over the past ten years have left disabled adults four times worse off financially than non-disabled adults according to the Disability Benefit Consortium.  

And research shows that nearly half of those in poverty, a total of 6.9 million people, are from families which include a disabled person.  

And disabled members have told their trade unions directly they are concerned the pandemic will push them and their families into poverty.  

TUC research found that disabled people were more than three times as likely to have had to use food banks then non-disabled people. It is therefore unsurprising that access to food has been a significant issue for disabled people during the pandemic. For those disabled people in the shielding category this has been particularly challenging as they have experienced significant difficulties in accessing supermarket deliveries. 

And when discussing in-work poverty it is important address the disproportionate negative impact benefit sanctions have had on disabled people.  

Multiple research reports show that sanctions do not move disabled people closer to paid work, instead they often worsen many disabled people’s existing illnesses and conditions, particularly in relation to mental health conditions. 

With this backdrop to the epidemic it is no surprise disabled people are worried about how the pandemic and recession will further impact on them financially.  

Additionally, evidence shows that the pandemic has worsened existing accessibility, isolation and disability rights barriers. And it impacts differently on disabled people with multiple identities. For example, during the pandemic women at risk of domestic abuse have also been isolated with their abuser. As a result, there has been a significant rise in domestic abuse and domestic homicides since lockdown began. Disabled women were already twice as likely as other women to experience domestic abuse. So, it is likely that disabled women have disproportionately affected by domestic abuse during the pandemic.  

The government’s legislative response to the pandemic has also been a concern for disabled people.  Disabled trade union members have voiced fears that new laws would  

  • Effectively free local authorities of some of their duties to provide social care support under the Care Act 2014.  
  • Reduce protections enshrined in the Mental Health Act so it takes fewer medical professionals to detain someone.  

It is essential that these measures are only in force as long as is required during a period of national emergency. As soon as is practical they must be repealed.  

Government should also publish the equality impact assessments that were undertaken when drafting these measures so that disabled people are better placed to understand the likely impacts.  

Existing government support for disabled people needs to be strengthened and adapted to ensure it appropriately meets their needs both currently and in the economic downturn.  

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Trade unions enforcing reasonable adjustments  

TUC research has found that one of the most common issues workplace reps deal with is disability discrimination.  

Research found that between 2014 and 2016 over half of reps reported they had dealt with disability-related issues, showing the high prevalence of workplace disability-related issues. 

We know that in pre-pandemic times our members have a hard time getting their reasonable adjustments put in place by their employer and keeping them in place.  

Disabled members tell us that they have to wait too long for reasonable adjustments to be put in place, putting them at a huge disadvantage in being able to do their job effectively.  

A recent Unison survey found; 

  • Half of respondents said they faced barriers to doing their job that could be removed through adjustments 
  • Of those who requested reasonable adjustments, over two thirds had some or all refused 
  • Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of those who required adjustments had waited a year or more to receive the adjustments they needed 

This can cause personal stress and anxiety, place pressure on colleagues, and lead to unfounded capability and performance issues. This is particularly true for many members who report that their reasonable adjustments are only put in place after their probation period has ended. 

As a result, members tell us they dread going into work where they believe they are being set up to fail. 

And this has not been made easier by the pandemic.  

Members have told us their employers did not put in place the adjustments they needed when forced to work from home because of the pandemic.  

And whenever we talk about the impact of pandemic on the lives of disabled people we must start with a statistic.  

6 in 10 of all deaths involving covid-19 were disabled people. The government have told us that over 100,000 people have died, they were not as clear that 60,000 of those that died were disabled people.  

There are no excuses, the government have badly botched their handling of the pandemic and disabled people have paid the price.  

Disabled people paid the price, often with their lives, when they did not have to.  

And we know the impact of the virus on disabled workers has continued within workplaces.  

This is despite workplace protections under the Equality Act not being changed by the pandemic.   

Some employers have treated putting in place reasonable adjustments as a trivial matter. It is not. It is of great importance to individuals and to disabled workers as a whole.  

In 2019 the TUC found that 391,000 (one in 10) disabled people dropped out of work in the UK over the previous 12 months Government research found that disabled people were twice as likely to fall out of work. 

Figures like this point to one of the reasons the disability employment continues to persist at around 30 per cent.  

In the pandemic, getting and keeping reasonable adjustments appears to have become even harder for disabled workers and could force even more out of the workforce 

The TUC has had reports from unions of employers targeting disabled workers for furlough rather than putting in place the reasonable adjustments they might need to work from home.  

Others have experienced failure to make reasonable adjustments when working from home.  

We need the government to step up and take action to protect disabled workers.  

We need the government to develop and promote clear guidance for employers on their legal responsibilities in relation to reasonable adjustments for disabled workers working from home.  

We need employers to review reasonable adjustments with their workers as we are now working in a rapidly changing environment and must ensure adjustments continue to remove workplace barriers. 

And we need the Equality and Human Rights Commission to improve its Employment Statutory Code of Practice.  

It must be updated with more and clearer examples of what timely implementation of reasonable adjustments looks like so no disabled member is left waiting for over a year to get the adjustments they need to do their job.  

The Code provides a detailed explanation of the Equality Act 2010. The explanation in turn assists courts and tribunals when interpreting the law and helps lawyers, advisers, trade union representatives, human resources departments and others who need to apply the law and understand its technical detail. 

The TUC and trade unions will campaign for the code to be updated with additional guidance to inform these groups’ interpretation of the law and therefore their practice. 

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Trade unions securing working from home as a reasonable adjustments  

For years disabled workers were told by employers that working from home as a reasonable adjustment was just not feasible.  

Members were told home working wasn’t their employers’ policy. They were told home working just wasn’t likely to be adopted.  

But the pandemic changed everything. It created a homeworking revolution for disabled people. 

The revolution was not based on the principled argument that home working would allow disabled workers to do their job better, with less pain, less fatigue and better allow them ability to better manage their time, health condition or impairment.  

The home working revolution was purely a necessary response to the pandemic.  

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, suddenly millions of people were told explicitly to work from home, including many who have previously been told that this was impossible. 

And whenever we talk about the impact of pandemic on the lives of disabled people we must start with a statistic.  

6 in 10 of all deaths involving covid-19 were disabled people. The government have told us that over 100,000 people have died, and 60,000 of those that died were disabled people.  

There are no excuses, the government have badly botched their handling of the pandemic and disabled people have paid the price often with their lives.  

The pandemic has had a massive impact on the world of work and much of that impact has been negative when it comes to disabled workers.  

And, make no mistake, mandatory homeworking has had a negative impact on some disabled workers. We believe homeworking should be member led and at their choice, not something imposed upon them.  

However, homeworking for many disabled workers was the most important reasonable adjustment they had requested, and the first request turned down by their employer.  

We know homeworking comes with many benefits for disabled members including increased productivity and reduced sickness absence. 

A Unison survey on homeworking during the pandemic found that almost three quarters (73 per cent) of disabled workers were more productive or just as productive working from home. When asked why they said the reasons for increased productivity included a reduced impact on pain and fatigue due to less commuting and ability to work more flexibly with additional breaks or later start times. 

The same survey found a number of disabled workers took less sickness absence as they were able to manage their condition better when working from home. 

And importantly over half (54 per cent) said they would like to continue to work from home in the future.  

The trade union movement must continue to ensure employers put in place and keep in place members’ reasonable adjustments, including homeworking.  

For over a year employers have enabled homeworking where they have said in the past it was not possible.  

We have seen it can work and it is possible.  

We must ensure disabled workers who want to work from home as a reasonable adjustment can do so.    

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