Research by the British TUC has highlighted how the many insecure workers in the UK have been exposed to disproportionate Covid-19 risk.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all relied on our key workers. Care workers and nurses have cared for our friends and family members when they have been taken ill. Delivery drivers have made sure we have food and other essential items delivered to our homes. Coronavirus testing staff have been at the heart of our vitally important test-and-trace system.
But many of these are insecure workers, who have experienced the worst aspects of an unfair labour market. And now they are at risk of being overlooked as we rebuild in the recovery.
Week to week, insecure workers are unsure whether they will have enough work or money coming in to pay the bills or put food on the table. Agency workers may discover their recruitment agency can’t find them an assignment. A zero-hours contract worker could be left without a shift by their employer.
In the United Kingdom, 3.7 million people face insecurity in work, because their contract does not guarantee regular hours or income or because they are in low-paid self-employment (earning less than the government’s ‘national living wage’). This is one in nine of those in work. And insecure work is often carried out by individuals who already face disadvantage and discrimination—with women, disabled workers and those in minority ethnic groups more likely to be in insecure jobs.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen higher infections and death rates in insecure jobs. Our recent analysis at the Trades Union Congress revealed that insecure occupations had Covid-19 mortality rates twice as high as those in other professions. And there have been egregious examples of health-and-safety failures in insecure occupations during the pandemic.
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Unite the Union sounded the alarm early on links between exploitation and Covid-19 outbreaks in meat-processing factories, revealing that track-and-trace record-keeping for agency workers was not being carried out properly. Unite found that production-line staff and cleaners, who often worked at multiple sites and whose contact details might not be available (not being direct employees), were overlooked during infection control procedures.
More generally, the transient and peripatetic nature of insecure work brings insecure workers into contact with a large number of people. An unpublished Public Health England study of care homes confirmed the increased risk associated with insecure work, in terms of Covid-19 infections and death rates.
The report showed that agency workers—often employed on zero-hours contracts—unwittingly transmitted the virus as the pandemic developed. The study warned: ‘Infection is spreading from care home to care home, linked to changed patterns of staffing, working across and moving between homes.’
These stark figures and examples show that more research is needed to understand the links between precarious work and the risk of infection and death. What we do know, though, is that, throughout the pandemic, workers in insecure employment have reported not having access to adequate or sufficient personal protective equipment to protect themselves and members of the public. For instance, the Fairwork Foundation found that while 60 per cent of platforms operators claimed to provide PPE (disinfectant or, less often, masks), workers often reported problems receiving any support.
Workers in insecure jobs are having to shoulder more risk of infection during this pandemic, while facing the triple blow of a lack of sick pay, fewer rights and endemic low pay. The UK has one of the lowest rates of sick pay in Europe and nearly two million workers, including many in insecure work, do not earn enough even to qualify.
This is failing those in insecure work and undermining any prospect of a safe reopening of the economy. It forces people to make an impossible choice between self-isolating and paying their bills.
This group of workers already experience a pay penalty compared with the average employee. For many, money is already tight, with fewer savings to fall back on. Insecure workers have told the TUC that they are reluctant to take sick leave, because they fear that their employer will find someone else to do their jobs if they don’t turn up.
Many can indeed be fired without notice. An employer can call a recruitment agency and ask them not to send the agency worker back into work. And those on zero-hours contracts have no guaranteed hours, so their employer can simply withdraw work at the drop of a hat.
It is thus deeply concerning, if sadly predictable, that new key workers vital to the pandemic response—such as Covid-19 testing staff and vaccinators—have been employed on insecure work contracts. Staff at coronavirus testing sites have not been employed directly by the National Health Service. The generalist contractor G4S operates the sites and uses a recruitment agency, HR GO, to source the workers.
HR GO appears to use an umbrella company to operate its payroll. The satirical magazine Private Eye has reported that this umbrella company has set up a number of ‘mini umbrellas’, additional labour-market intermediaries, which are the legal employers of these workers. In other words, G4S has chosen to use a recruitment agency which has deliberately extended its supply chain, by using labour-market intermediaries for ‘commercial reasons’, with little regard for the impact this has on the key workers at these testing sites. Workers have thus reported not being sure who their employer is and to whom to speak when problems arise.
A Guardian investigation reveals usage of such ‘mini umbrellas’ has been widespread in the UK test-and-trace system. They can exploit an allowance for start-ups and small traders to minimise social-insurance contributions.
Catalyst for change
Too many workers are trapped in zero-hours contracts or other sorts of insecure work. Lots of them are the key workers we have all relied on and applauded. This pandemic should be a catalyst for change.
At the TUC we have identified three key reforms to eradicate insecure work and build back better. First, it’s vital that sick pay is reformed, to give all workers who are ill or those who need to self-isolate a proper financial safety-net, which enables them to meet their commitments while they are off work.
Secondly, we need new rights for workers to enjoy the protection collective bargaining brings. We want unions to have access to workplaces to tell workers about the benefits of union membership and collective agreements.
And, finally, we need a ban on zero-hours contracts. We want their effective abolition by giving workers the right to a contract that reflects their regular hours.
Everyone deserves decent work. It’s time to tackle the scourge of insecure work, once and for all.
Matt Creagh is an employment-rights policy officer at the Trades Union Congress, working on campaigns to strengthen the labour-market enforcement system and improve working conditions for agency workers.