Ahead of the Budget on Wednesday (March 3), Unite is reiterating its calls to chancellor Rishi Sunak to take urgent and decisive action to protect health, jobs and incomes.
The Budget will be the litmus test as to whether the government is serious about saving as many jobs as possible and also providing a blueprint for future employment opportunities Unite said today (March 1).
When the chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils his budget to MPs on Wednesday (March 3), Unite is calling on him to extend the furlough scheme until the end of 2021 as the major plank in the UK’s recovery plan.
Unite has a 10-point plan pinpointing health, jobs and incomes that it wishes the chancellor to take urgent action on, including seven ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects, such as gigafactories for the transition to electric vehicles; and the permanent continuation of the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit.
Sunak is expected to extend furlough again for another few months, but Unite is urging the chancellor to extend furlough until at least the end of this year, as most other developed countries with such schemes have already committed to doing.
The chancellor should moreover use the Budget as an opportunity to fix the many holes in the furlough scheme, also known as the Jobs Retention Scheme, which sees far too many people falling through the gaps.
For instance, many workers have been excluded from the scheme because they started work after an arbitrary cut-off date set by the government. Meanwhile, far too many employers are denying their workers furlough, such as mums and dads who need to homeschool and care for their children. Perhaps the most glaring hole in the furlough scheme is the lack of a minimum wage floor – furloughed minimum wage workers are being expected to live on 80 per cent of their already meagre, barely livable wages.
As Unite has highlighted for months now, cutting the Universal Credit uplift of £20 a week, which was first introduced as an emergency measure last March, would consign millions more to poverty at a time when unemployment is only expected to increase.
The chancellor is expected to extend the uplift for another six months, but Unite has argued that the increase should be made permanent. Universal Credit was already woefully inadequate in meeting the needs of millions of struggling families. This was highlighted in a recent Unite survey where 78 per cent of Universal Credit claimants reported that the amount they receive – even with the added £20 a week – is not enough to live on.
The chancellor should also use the Budget to fix other problems with Universal Credit – such as extending the uplift to those on legacy benefits, many of whom are disabled, and ending the five-week wait period for the first Universal Credit payment.
As Unite’s survey found, 84 per cent of Universal Credit claimants found the five-week wait period difficult, with just over half saying they had to put themselves further into debt by taking out an advance payment loan to cover the wait period.
In even more damning evidence of the pain the future cut to Universal Credit will cause, new research from the New Economics Foundation found that even if the Universal Credit increase is extended, one in three Brits, more than 20m people, will be living in hardship by May.
Rewarding key workers
Unite is further calling on the chancellor to properly reward the millions of key workers who have helped get the nation through crisis. The government should give all 4m public sector workers – from nurses, to bin men, paramedics to health visitors and many more in between – a substantial pay rise to make up for a decade of real-terms pay cuts under austerity, as well as to honour the sacrifices they’ve made during the pandemic.
What’s more, outsourced workers who work in delivering core public services but who are employed by private companies, such as care workers, should also be included in a pay rise, with funding given to departments to take their wages up to at least the real Living Wage.
The government can also, with the stroke of a pen, give an additional 2m workers – many of whom are key workers working in supermarkets, meat factories and other essential services – an instant pay rise. Unite is calling for the minimum wage to be raised to at least £10 an hour.
These calls were echoed in the TUC’s Pay Rise for Key Workers campaign, which Unite is backing.
Ever since the pandemic began, Unite has been urgently calling for an increase in statutory sick pay (SSP), which currently stands at £95 a week – just about a fifth of average wages. What’s more, far too many people – about 2m – aren’t even eligible to SSP, including the self-employed and one in three zero hours contract workers.
The government introduced a one-off self-isolation payment of £500 for low-income workers last year, but the eligibility criteria is so strict that 70 per cent of people who applied for the payment in England were turned down.
Recently, head of NHS Track and Trace Baroness Dido Harding said that about 20,000 people each day are failing to self-isolate when told to, mainly because they cannot afford to stay home from work. Unite has warned that any progress made to slow transmission of the virus amid lockdown will be doomed to failure if so many people cannot afford to self-isolate.
Unite is calling on the government to increase SSP to £320 a week – a living wage – and abolish the lower earnings threshold so that it is available to all workers. Support must also be expanded to include the self-employed.
Public investment in green jobs
With the UK experiencing its worst slump in economic growth since the Great Frost of 1709, Unite says that there is no time to waste and is urging the government ahead of the Budget to invest in a mass jobs creation programme to stave off rising unemployment and tackle the climate emergency.
The latest figures show that nearly 2m people are now jobless – the highest rate for five years – with more jobs expected to be lost when furlough ends.
Unite has argued that the UK is moving too slowly if it wants to retain its position as a modern manufacturing nation, overlooking clear opportunities to create urgently needed jobs to arrest the continuing rise in unemployment.
Last month, Unite launched its Plan for Jobs in UK Manufacturing produced in consultation with Acuity Analysis, which sets out seven projects that are best placed to create jobs now and assist the UK in meeting its climate change obligations.
Some of these include a mass housing retrofit programme, the building of seven new electric vehicle battery factories or gigafactories, investment in the roll out of high speed broadband and increasing off-shore wind capacity.
Commenting, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said, “The Budget will be the litmus test as to how the chancellor Rishi Sunak intends to rebuild the country out of the rubble of the pandemic.
“The central theme of the Budget must be a firm commitment to securing as many jobs as possible by extending the furlough scheme to the end of the year and laying out a template as to how to create more employment opportunities for the post-Covid economy,” he added.
“The chancellor should avoid the temptation for clever budget wheezes and financial sleight-of-hand give-aways to reward the wealthy and pander to the demands of MPs on the right of his party.
“This budget must be one that unites the whole country with job security and creation, as well as social justice, at its heart. It needs to live up to the government’s much-vaunted ‘levelling up’ pledges,”McCluskey continued.
“With a five year high in unemployment, there is a strong need for a significant extension to furlough to give the necessary stability to the economy, and working people and their families.
“And while the accelerating rate of the vaccination programme is to be applauded, the threat of new variants warns us that we are a long way from this pandemic ending and life returning to ‘normal’ as we are used to.
“Therefore, the government must not repeat its previous mistake when it delayed extending the jobs retention scheme, currently due to finish at the end of April, only to do so at the last minute. Such dithering costs jobs,” he went on to say.
“All we are asking for is the same stability as our competitors. Italy, France and Germany all have superior and lengthier furlough schemes. They will emerge from this crisis in a far better shape than this country as a result – that’s why the scheme’s extension until the end of the year is paramount.”
You can read Unite’s full 10-point plan for the Budget on our website here.
And don’t forget to sign up to take part in the TUC’s online Rally for a Workers’ Budget on Tuesday (March 2) evening. Speakers will include TUC president and Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds and TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady among others. Find out more here.
By UniteLive team