With less than a month until the end of the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), the threat of mass unemployment still stalks our communities. While the Chancellor’s Job Support Scheme (JSS) will help many anxious workers to breathe more easily, for now, it is far too little, and way too late for many more.
The battle to save jobs is the most important social and economic issue emerging from the pandemic and we’re in a full-on struggle to save jobs across the economy. That is why Unite has welcomed Gordon Brown’s Alliance for Full Employment (AfFE) initiative and is backing it wholeheartedly.
His call for a new deal for working people to stave off the worst recession in modern history and halt the coming tsunami of mass unemployment is something that I’ve been asking for throughout this crisis and, indeed, for some time before.
Yet the government seems ideologically incapable of grasping it. As Gordon Brown has said, how do we persuade the Prime Minister and Chancellor that action is urgently needed?
There is a criminal lack of engagement at the heart of government that means workers and their employers are being abandoned. Wasteland UK is a very real prospect unless the government acts immediately to support key sectors. I will not allow my appeals to the Prime Minister to urgently signal that his government is prepared to act to save businesses and workers from the cliff edge to go unanswered.
If Boris Johnson thinks that Rishi Sunak’s new measures are enough to silence me, he is wrong. It simply cannot be the last word on protecting jobs and livelihoods. This crisis has exposed deep faults in how our country works. The public can see that in this time of maximum economic and health strife it is our lowly paid key workers, not the super-rich, who are leading this country through this crisis. The AfFE launches comes at a time when there is clearly a new possibility for political change.
‘Britons hungry for change’
Unite’s own UK wide survey revealed that Britons are hungry for change, hungry for a new deal for working people. They want major economic reform, both now and in our post-pandemic society. Among the survey’s key findings were that the public’s idea of who counts as a key worker has changed, that these workers should be paid more, that Britain needs to manufacture more, that there should be no more austerity, and that there’s little support for taxpayer funding for tax avoiders.
These views chime exactly with Gordon Brown’s key demands – that there should be no return to austerity and to top rate tax cuts being handed to the richest paid for by benefit cuts for the poorest.
Among Brown’s proposals are a new constitution for the Bank of England that requires them to take action on unemployment as seriously as action on inflation. With Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England (BoE), siding with working people in the fight to save jobs by backing demands that the Chancellor rethinks the ending of the furlough scheme, surely he can support us in this call?
The AfFE is right to say that subsidies for part-time working must continue through 2021, as in Germany and France, particularly in key slow-to-recover sectors. The fact is that the Job Support Scheme will provide just a fraction of the wage subsidy that the short-time working schemes in those countries provide, and for only six months, putting us at a distinct competitive disadvantage.
Industries like aviation, aerospace, retail and hospitality, where jobs are being lost hand over fist and where the impact of this crisis continues to be devastating, desperately need further and longer-term support.
Dismissing jobs in these sectors as not viable is to leave communities to descend into jobs wastelands. While German and French workers are able to sleep easy in their beds, millions of UK workers continue to be treated in a second-class way. Contrast too Gordon Brown’s call for a genuine guarantee that gives every young person leaving school, college, university and training to join the ranks of the unemployed the chance of work training or education, with the government’s announcement of additional funds for retraining over-24s.
Plans for training and reskilling were a glaring omission from the Chancellor’s winter economic plan and the UK has long lagged behind other advanced nations on skills investment. While any effort by ministers to try to reverse this can only be positive, April is far too late for any initiative to tackle the skills gap and they are in danger of not only sending a message that mass unemployment is inevitable, but that younger workers, a group so badly hit by this pandemic, are being forgotten.
The government’s youth employment plan offers just six months at only 25 hours a week, while there is at least £3bn sitting idle in the apprenticeship levy because accessing it is nigh on impossible. Ministers’ heads need to be knocked together to get this fund moving into workplaces to give our young workers real hope of skilled work and a future.
They must also spell out, and soon, what incomes assistance measures will be taken to ensure that those who do lose their jobs, are able to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, because this country’s historic and cruelly low levels of social security mean that if people are left to fall out of employment and onto benefits they will be plunged into certain poverty.
Unite is determined to continue to fight for better and wider support for all workers and we will work with the AfFE and any organisation that shares our movement’s determination not to allow our industries and communities to be left to rot.
This comment first appeared in Tribune
By Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary @LenMcCluskey