A London tour guide approached me recently near to the office. He was a Unite member and wanted to know what we have been doing for the past year to help self-employed workers such as him.
He was right to ask. Millions of Britons, for one reason or another, do not qualify for the financial and business support that the government has put in place since last March. These include the newly self-employed and those who do a mix of low-paid employed work which they top up with self-employed gig work. They don’t earn at least half of their income from that self-employment so don’t qualify for the Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS).
Freelancers too, whose main or sole employers won’t put them on the books or the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), all those employed by companies that have refused to take part in the scheme and, of course, the bogusly self-employed.
Too often it’s said that unions don’t represent these workers. But Unite alone has taxi drivers, tour guides, British sign language interpreters, hospitality, domestic workers and construction workers. There are of course the actors, musicians, television and theatre technicians, journalists and countless more diverse occupations all given a voice through their trade union membership. That’s why Unite and other unions, through the TUC, lobbied for the SEISS scheme to protect the income of the self-employed, as hard as we fought for the JRS for employees, and for it to be extended both in length and coverage.
The chancellor listened to an extent and extended the SEISS in his March budget to the newly self-employed but has not provided the parity with the JRS that we continue to demand.
Over five million working people are classed as self-employed in the UK – one of the highest levels in Europe and the second highest among G7 countries, reflecting our insecure labour market. They have the right to expect the government to support them accordingly. Almost one in seven of them haven’t worked at all during this latest lockdown, a 50 per cent increase on the first lockdown, yet large numbers remain excluded from the scheme’s complex rules, and because the proportion of income derived from self-employed work necessary to qualify remains too high.
When Rishi Sunak talks of putting an arm around workers, it’s just not these workers.
Falling between the cracks
Migrant workers too fall between the cracks, either as domestic workers or because hostile environment policies exclude them from statutory support.
We go on speaking up for them and for all those who have not been given the same economic security in these terrible times as the directly employed. Just as we continue to demand, as we have from the start of the pandemic, for an increase in Statutory Sick Pay to £320 a week – a real living wage – and the abolition of the lower earnings threshold so that it is available to all workers, along with its expansion to the self-employed.
Until the government addresses our scandalously low level of sick pay, any scheme to reopen the economy that rests on isolation but without income is half-baked and will fail.
By far the most effective way to give many of these workers economic security is for the government to end bogus self-employment outright, declare them workers and bring them into the furlough scheme.
This would be an important start towards rebuilding secure employment, which must be at the heart of any ambition to build back better. Ministers could do this at the stroke of a pen, giving the thousands of construction workers, delivery drivers and warehouse workers, who’ve been told to declare themselves self-employed by their ‘employers’, straightforward and speedy access to a package of support.
One-off pandemic payments would also go some way to convincing workers like our tour guide members that they are not being ignored by government. Taxi drivers in Wales secured hardship funding from local authorities after a Unite campaign led to the Welsh government accepting our concerns about the application process for discretionary grants failing to take into account the devastating economic impact Covid restrictions have had on drivers’ jobs.
In Scotland, our pressure led to the Scottish government changing the eligibility criteria for taxi driver grants, and we continue to call for additional support for taxi operators and second cash grants for drivers, along with calling on all Scottish local authorities to follow the example of Dundee City council in proving taxi and private hire drivers a £1,000 grant.
By contrast, the Westminster government has refused from the outset to provide additional support for taxi drivers in England, with the chancellor instead falling back on the £1.6bn of business and sole trader grants given to local authorities to distribute and which has seen cabbies receiving as little as £400 compared with some other professions. There must be much greater control by Westminster of the distribution of support grants to ensure equality.
Essential public services providers
Let’s not forget that many self-employed people have been providing essential public services during the pandemic. They’ve risked their health to provide them and earn a living. Taxi drivers have been subcontracted to drive patients to Covid clinics yet they, along with health service interpreters, have been denied priority vaccines as they are not directly employed by the NHS.
And now, many skilled jobs including interpreters and tour guides, are facing additional uncertainty and insecurity as employers increasingly use the cover of Covid to replace the essential face to face services with automated voice programmes, justifying this on health and safety grounds.
There remains a gaping disparity between the employed and the self-employed which is divisive and grossly unfair. Building back better in the labour market must include good quality self-employed work that is safe and sustainable.
The vaccine roll-out may finally be giving hope that we are we emerging from this crisis, but tour guides, interpreters, cabbies, set designers and all the other millions of self-employed and precarious workers cannot wait for the lights to fully come back on. They need longer term income support now, or be pushed further into poverty.
By Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary