At the start of 2020, no one could have predicted the terrible toll that Covid-19 would take on lives and livelihoods. As I write, over half a million people worldwide have lost their lives to the virus and the UK has one of the worst death rates in Europe.
Years of public service cuts left the UK poorly prepared for the pandemic, with the NHS, care homes and other vital services scrambling to access even basic PPE.
The government was slow to lockdown and slow to set up a system for test and trace. Millions were wasted on an app that never materialised and even during lockdown it transpired that there is still one rule for some, and another for everyone else.
We all owe an enormous debt to key workers – our members – who led the nation’s Covid-19 response: carers and medics who tended the elderly and the sick, shop workers who kept food on the shelves and transport workers who kept the country running, to name but a few. Their devotion to duty made us all proud. And in too many cases, these workers made the ultimate sacrifice to keep the rest of us safe.
Key workers have earned more than our thanks. Nearly four million of them, mostly women, are paid less than £10 an hour. Many are trapped in insecure work, without guaranteed hours and often denied the most basic of rights, including sick pay. In the months ahead unions will demand the respect and rewards that key workers and all working families deserve.
In such unprecedented and challenging times, the vital role of unions at work and in society – standing up for working people, demanding safe working conditions and protecting jobs and incomes – is more important than ever.
We stepped up to the plate. Unions pressed government for the historic job retention and self-employment support schemes, subsidising the wages of millions who otherwise would have been left with nothing. We put steel into the spine of government safety guidelines, winning requirements on equality, consultation with safety reps and publication of Covid-19 risk assessments so corporations could be held to account. And we won a day one right to sick pay for millions of low-paid workers.
We are also fighting for truth and justice. We have called for an independent public inquiry to investigate the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.
Coronavirus has exposed the deadly impact of systemic race inequality. Black workers are more likely to work in jobs where the risk of contracting coronavirus is greatest, on insecure contracts and low pay which means they cannot afford to take sick leave. Unions have called out the government’s woeful response and demanded urgent action to address structural racism.
As the economy slumps, we are pushing for bold action to avoid a 1930s-style depression. The despair of mass unemployment is not inevitable. We have made the case for substantial government investment in infrastructure, support to stave off company collapse and job losses, and quality job creation programmes – not least for young people – to prevent the life-scarring impact of worklessness.
Our core work continues. For millions of workers the value of union organisation has never been clearer. Organise 2020, our summer organising festival, showcased inspiring organising stories from around the UK and the world. We are backing our unions to build membership and strengthen collective agreements. And we refuse to go back to business as usual.
The challenges we still face are many. From deep inequality to the urgency of tackling climate change, to making new technologies our servant, not our master, and demanding a Brexit and other trade deals that uphold jobs, rights and public services.
So we have our work cut out. But if we’ve learned anything through this pandemic, it is that there is such a thing as society. We have won widespread support for our values of dignity, justice and solidarity and for our practical policy solutions to the problems working families face.
Now we must convert that popular support into stronger unions – the best way to protect working people and deliver fair shares. We have proved we can rise to the challenge. Now together let’s win the new deal that working people deserve.
In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the UK it became clear that the country was facing its greatest public health crisis for a century. On 23 March, the government introduced significant new restrictions limiting people’s ability to travel outside their homes, closing schools and shutting down large sections of the UK economy. Over the months that followed, tens of thousands of people lost their lives to Covid-19, with many more facing severe illness. Keyworkers put their own lives on the line to care for coronavirus patients and to keep key services and industries open. Rates of bankruptcy and unemployment rose sharply as the economic impacts of the pandemic began.
At time of writing, the rates of infections and deaths were showing some improvement and government lockdown restrictions were slowly lifting. The scale of the economic slump the UK economy is facing was becoming clear. The pandemic was far from over.
Throughout this period the TUC has sought to ensure that the voice of working people is at the heart of the government’s policy response, and to support unions in their vital work of protecting workers’ safety and livelihoods.
In early March, as the scale of the potential hit to jobs emerged, the TUC published a report calling for the urgent introduction of a wage subsidy scheme, modelled on schemes across Europe. Following intensive discussions with the TUC and business groups, the chancellor announced the coronavirus job retention scheme (generally known as the ‘furlough scheme’). This committed the government to pay 80 per cent of the wages of workers who would otherwise be laid off because of the pandemic – up to a cap of £2,500 a month. The TUC then called for a similar scheme to support the self-employed – publishing a new report the following week and continuing urgent discussions with the Treasury, including a roundtable with unions representing self-employed workers. The self-employment income support scheme, covering 80 per cent of the incomes of lower-paid self-employed workers, was announced shortly after.
The TUC lobbied hard to ensure many insecure workers were eligible for one of the two main government wage-support schemes during the pandemic. However, large numbers remained ineligible and some employers refused to enter insecure workers for the schemes.
While neither scheme is perfect, both have provided vital support to protect jobs. At the end of June 2020, 9.3 million jobs had been furloughed – with workers’ wages paid through the job retention scheme, and £25bn paid out from the Treasury to support their employment. A further 2.6 million people had received support through the self-employed income support scheme, with a total of £7.7bn paid.
The TUC and unions remained in dialogue with the Chancellor and the Treasury throughout, securing significant improvements to the job retention scheme’s operation. These included the initial ability to run job rotation schemes, clarity that those on insecure contracts could be furloughed, an extension to the ‘cut-off date’ for entry to the furlough scheme and confirmation that union reps could perform their vital roles while on furlough. We also helped secure a clear statement that employers could use the furlough scheme to support the incomes of those who could not work because of health or caring responsibilities.
When the government moved to phase out the scheme we argued for measures to protect wages and jobs. We secured confirmation that as the Treasury moved to reduce the role of the furlough scheme, workers’ wages would not be reduced below 80 per cent of their normal rate, employers would be able to bring workers back on a part-time basis, and that employer contributions would be phased in only on a gradual basis.
Despite the significant role that both the furlough and the self-employed income support schemes have played in protecting jobs and wages, the TUC has argued throughout the crisis that a wider package of support is needed. We held two roundtables with the Chancellor, facilitated meetings between union leaders and Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, and organised regular meetings with business secretary Alok Sharma and his under-secretary Paul Scully. We have argued for further support through the furlough scheme – including for those excluded from the current scheme, who are shielding or have caring responsibilities, and for businesses that are viable but face cash-flow problems due to the virus.
The TUC remains concerned that the government will need to provide significantly more support to the economy to protect jobs. In early May, we published a set of proposals for a new jobs guarantee, setting out the need for funded, additional jobs for those at risk of long-term unemployment, especially young people. Later the same month we published A Better Recovery, launched at an online event with the TUC general secretary speaking alongside Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds MP. In June we published Rebuilding After Recession, showing that investment in low-carbon infrastructure had the potential to support 1.24 million jobs, and setting out how increased investment in public services should also be used to support employment. The report argued for new sectoral recovery panels and for the government taking equity stakes in companies. It also urged the government to put equality at the heart of its proposals for protecting jobs, ensuring that the structural discrimination faced by BME people, women, disabled people and other groups with protected characteristics was not worsened in recession. We continue to call for a national council for recovery to give unions and business a voice in shaping the post-Covid-19 economy.
Throughout, the TUC has argued that we need not only to rebuild the economy but also to build back better, with decent work as our priority. The coronavirus has exposed many of the inequalities in the labour market that the TUC has long highlighted: the systematic underpayment of key workers; the insecurity faced by those on zero-hours contracts, including a shamefully high proportion of the social care workforce; the lack of respect for workers who have spoken out about health and safety; and deep-seated racial inequalities that have led to a disproportionate number of coronavirus deaths among BME people.
As the pandemic has hit, the TUC has exposed three fundamental problems with sick pay: the three days that people have to wait before becoming eligible; the exclusion of two million people because they do not earn enough to qualify; and the shockingly low level of the benefit, which at £96 a week is worth just a fifth of weekly earnings. The government responded to the problem of the three-day waiting period in the March budget, announcing that those who were self-isolating due to coronavirus would receive sick pay from day one. However, the TUC continues to campaign to protect the two million people excluded, and to raise the level of sick pay to a level people can live on. We continue to set out to government the significant hardship that current sick pay policy causes for people at work, as well as the limits it places on the national coronavirus response.
During the pandemic, as people have lost their jobs or have fallen between the gaps in the job protection schemes, the government advised them to turn to the welfare safety net. The TUC has highlighted how this safety net has failed. For newly unemployed claimants, the basic rate of universal credit is worth only around a sixth of average weekly pay. We also continued to highlight the scandal of the five-week wait for the first payment of universal credit, and the huge financial suffering this has caused for claimants. As part of this work we surveyed workers on its impact.
In April, the TUC published Fixing the Safety Net: next steps in the economic response to the coronavirus crisis, a set of proposals to rebuild the social security system, including calling for a significant increase in the basic rate of benefit to £260 a week.
1.4 Special feature: Health and safety at work
The TUC has placed the health and safety of workers at the heart of our coronavirus response. We have challenged both government and enforcement agencies to take action to prevent exposure to risk in every workplace. Our report on a safe return to the workplace set clear standards for all employers to follow, and the TUC and trade unions worked hard to improve very flimsy initial government guidance. We subsequently won important improvements, including a government expectation that employers publish their risk assessments, clear references to equality law and a direction for employers to consult with unions and workers.
The TUC and unions were represented across many subsequent sectoral working groups set up to develop guidance on safe working practices. Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak also represented the TUC on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport cultural renewal taskforce.
The TUC campaigned for additional resources for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities to enable them to respond effectively to Covid-19. We secured additional funding for the HSE to increase its call centre capacity, and continue to push for more substantial resources. Inspection capacity remains a key concern, along with the HSE’s decision to step back from proactive inspections at the start of lockdown.
Unions raised specific concerns about the construction sector, in response to changes in guidance from Public Health England (PHE) on social distancing. Unions also questioned working practices in high-risk areas of the economy, including the meat processing sector, where significant spikes in coronavirus were experienced and the Food Standards Agency had significantly reduced its inspection regime.
The TUC continues to push government to legislate to ensure all risk assessments are published online. Our ‘covid-secure’ website has shown that many employers are still falling short of minimum legal standards in health and safety. We also continue to make the case for new rights for union safety reps to be able to advise union members in all workplaces.
As the government began to increase coronavirus testing capacity, the TUC published a report, Testing and Tracing for Covid-19, on fair testing and monitoring in the workplace. In discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) minister Nadhim Zahawi MP, the TUC argued that low-paid workers in precarious jobs with little or no access to sick pay would not be able to afford to self-isolate. Unions reinforced this message in a roundtable with Baroness Dido Harding, chair of the NHS test and trace programme, who then echoed our concern publicly.
In a response to the Women and Equality Select Committee, the TUC set out our disappointment at the government’s failure to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) during the pandemic. We argued that the impact of the pandemic, and the government’s failure to adequately assess the equality impact of its policy responses, risked setting progress on equality back decades.
We highlighted the negative impact of the pandemic on LGBT+ workers’ mental health, resulting from the breakdown of supportive community structures and possible confinement with hostile and discriminatory people, including family members.
We also gave voice to the experiences of disabled workers and released Covid-19 reasonable adjustments guidance for unions. In July we published a report, Job Security, calling for the extension of the job retention scheme for workers who had been asked by government to shield at home to protect themselves from the risk of coronavirus.
The TUC highlighted the over-exposure of BME workers to Covid-19 during the lockdown as a major factor in the disproportionate number of BME deaths. We launched a call to evidence for BME workers, asking them to tell us about their experiences of discrimination. Our report Dying on the Job, published in July, featured the real-life experience of racism that BME workers reported to us. Separately, we set out our concerns about the government’s failure to publish an important PHE report on the pandemic’s impacts on BME groups. The general secretary met the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to press that it prioritise work on race equality. The regulator subsequently launched a formal inquiry into the impact of coronavirus on BME people and we continue to call for a proper independent public inquiry into ministers’ mishandling of the crisis.
Throughout this pandemic the TUC warned that childcare issues were disproportionately affecting working mothers, widening pre-existing labour market inequalities. We called for a significant bailout for the childcare sector, to ensure that nurseries, childminders, breakfast and after-school childcare and holiday schemes were able to remain open with social distancing measures in place. Our report Forced Out: the cost of getting childcare wrong argued that without government action progress on women’s labour market participation could be lost.
New TUC analysis showed that around 70 per cent of mothers currently on maternity leave have been unable to find the childcare they need to return to work, a finding highlighted in our Pregnant and Precarious report, published in June.
It set out the scale of workplace discrimination experienced by new and expectant mothers, and the actions government and employers needed to take.
Throughout the lockdown, the TUC played a key role in coordinating sectoral discussion between government and trade unions. Through the Public Services Forum, public sector unions have held several meetings with the cabinet office secretary and officials, raising a wide range of concerns directly.
The TUC challenged the government on its shambolic provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), which left frontline workers exposed when the pandemic was at its peak. Despite constant reassurances, the government has never had a meaningful or effective plan in this area. The two-tier conditions of employment in public services were also exposed, as critical support staff such as cleaners and security guards were not included in priority groups for PPE. Security staff were later found to be among those at greatest risk of coronavirus death. Unions made these points at a roundtable discussion the TUC convened with Lord Paul Deighton, appointed by government to lead a national effort to produce PPE for frontline health and social care staff. The TUC also called publicly for an independent, judge-led inquiry into the government’s failings on PPE.
Social care has been severely impacted by coronavirus. For years trade unions have been arguing that the sector is the poor relative of the health service, reflected in workforce terms and conditions. This underinvestment and neglect saw care homes receive inadequate or no PPE, and experience shockingly high death rates. The TUC supported unions to call for a new settlement for social care, setting out the need to provide good employment, pay, conditions and training for the workforce.
During the Covid-19 crisis we have facilitated regular, productive discussions between government and transport unions representing rail, bus, maritime and aviation workers. We have ensured union input into regulations on wearing masks and other safety measures, the management of fluctuations in service use during the pandemic, and other issues concerning staff wellbeing.
Public transport workers faced enormous pressure to maintain operations during the pandemic, and rail unions ensured risk assessment and risk management were prioritised. As passenger footfall increased with the easing of lockdown, rail unions continued to champion worker and public safety.
Bus drivers were among the occupational groups severely affected by coronavirus, with significant numbers of fatalities. Again, the TUC worked with unions to press for safe systems of work, and new measures were introduced to provide some protection. Transport unions have campaigned for the same death-in-service benefits that have been secured in the health sector.
Aviation was one of the first sectors to experience a dramatic downturn, with passenger numbers dropping by over 95 per cent within weeks of the lockdown. The TUC facilitated regular engagement with officials and ministers in the Department for Transport, making the case for urgent health protection measures and specific sectoral support. The economic impact of the virus will be felt for some time, with predictions suggesting it will take three to five years before passenger numbers recover to pre-pandemic levels. Tens of thousands of jobs remain at risk, as well as the sustainability of a critical part of the UK’s infrastructure.
Education unions have faced extreme pressure during the crisis. Many education workers continued to work to provide school places for key workers’ children and to support online education for those learning at home. Unions across the sector worked together to agree key safety measures to protect staff, pupils and the wider community from exposure to risk.
Government engagement with unions in the sector was poor, with health and safety guidance issued without meaningful consultation or presented to unions with insufficient time for a considered response. The government’s initial policy of achieving a full reopening of schools in England as early as possible was criticised by unions and other stakeholders as premature, given the heightened risks of the virus being transmitted among pupils and staff. In May, the TUC and education unions issued two statements outlining the measures needed for the safe wider reopening of schools. These statements also called for improvements to high-level strategic dialogue, including a taskforce comprising government, unions and education stakeholders. The TUC general secretary and education unions met with the secretary of state at the end of May to discuss these matters. In June the government established a new Covid-19 Response School Stakeholder Advisory Group, which is currently in discussions about agreeing the guidance for a wider reopening of schools in September.
Affiliated unions representing members in FE and HE also issued joint statements outlining the measures needed for the safe return of students to colleges and universities. The TUC has also highlighted the need for government to address the funding crises facing our post-school institutions.
Entertainment sectors, such as theatres and live music venues, have been particularly hit by Covid-19, with many fighting for their survival. The TUC has facilitated dialogue between entertainment unions and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the voices of workers in the heritage, culture and entertainment industries were heard during the crisis.
TUC Education mobilised all its existing resources – and created new ones – to provide vital support and training for workplace union reps during the pandemic.
All 19 TUC Education centres were faced with the prospect of not being able to deliver in-person training for reps. In response, the TUC ensured that all centres could offer a summer term programme using the existing online materials for our three core courses – union reps one, health and safety one, and union learning reps one. By the end of April, 13 of 19 colleges had advertised a summer term programme, and by the end of May, 28 courses had started with over 350 reps registered.
The use of webinars increased dramatically after the lockdown. Between the start of lockdown and the middle of June, TUC Education delivered 13 webinars related to the pandemic, with over 8,000 reps taking part.
TUC Education also developed four microlearning sites to support reps on specific issues related to the pandemic. To date, these have been accessed by over 20,000 reps.
TUC Education also supported unions to continue to deliver training to reps. This involved e-learning, online provision and support for unions to deliver their own webinars.
Unionlearn responded rapidly to the pandemic and put in place a number of initiatives, including:
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