Furlough scheme 'must be extended for as long as it takes'

Unite AGS Steve Turner: after four-week lockdown extension, chancellor Rishi Sunak must step up and support workers

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Michael Gove is just wrong when he claims that Rishi Sunak has created enough of a cushion to prevent further need for financial assistance beyond September.

It is simply irresponsible to announce a four-week extension of lockdown in England without any extension of vital support for workers terrified for their futures and the businesses forced to remain closed or barely operating.

This lockdown extension is born of the dither and delay that this PM has consistently displayed during this crisis, but most of all it is caused by his self-indulgent ‘cakeism’, refusing to close our borders even as the world watched India being consumed by a health crisis. 

Make no mistake, Boris Johnson’s ‘have it all and to hell with the consequences’ approach has led directly to the likelihood of a third wave and further economic misery for working people, who are entirely blameless for this crisis. Now there are real fears that once again our NHS will be overwhelmed as the battle rages to see who will be the victor between virus growth and vaccinations roll-out.

Again, it falls to the trade union movement to go into battle to avert September’s feared jobs cliff-edge.  There’s a definite feeling of déjà vu as we once more press the government to wake up to the economic reality that they must give our workers nothing other and nothing less than the support given by our economic competitors.

While the French, Italian and German governments see the value of hanging onto their skilled workforces, all the better to position for the recovery when it comes, our government reaches into the back catalogues of failing laissez-faire economics.  Standing on the sidelines doesn’t just lose skills and jobs, it sends the signal to business that this government has no plan.

As President Biden trumpets his recovery package, putting him on the side of the US people, here we have to scrap for every crumb. Sixteen months in, we still fail to support people adequately if they have to isolate and our pitiful sick pay is the shame of Europe, providing no incentive for the insecure to stay away from work if they contract the virus.

And now we know the Treasury suppressed information about the right of employers to temporarily furlough workers required to self-isolate, a disgraceful decision that will undoubtedly have cost lives, led to increased infections and meant that successive lockdowns have lasted longer than necessary, further damaging the economy.

I’m proud to have been part of the leadership of the team that negotiated the original job retention scheme and other support packages with the chancellor and business secretary. Covid has been the biggest challenge I have faced in my lifetime as a trade unionist and what the unions have achieved to help working people through the crisis is a huge measure of why they are needed, more than ever.

The UK entered the pandemic in a very dangerous place.  After years of austerity and decades of government neglect, our NHS and public services were so ravaged.  That they were able to step up, to support us all through these testing and fearful days has been nothing short of astonishing, and in the main thanks to a heroic workforce.  And with some of the highest levels of personal and household debt of any developed nation, people were living in incredibly precarious positions, with extremely high poverty levels and tens of millions using foodbanks.

None of that has changed. In fact child poverty, food bank use, business and personal debt have all rocketed. Denying support for jobs and businesses for the coming deeply uncertain months, and cutting Universal Credit by £20 makes no economic sense.  It is an ideological move, and a heartless move. Far better to borrow to recover, while money is cheap yet the human costs of no or the wrong actions will scar us for generations.

Of course, the Tories didn’t just wake up one morning and decide furlough was a great idea. It was a long and difficult discussion with the Treasury team and with Rishi Sunak, a negotiation that we had to have again and again, and yet again each time lockdown restrictions were extended or reimposed.

People fell through the cracks and we’ve carried on trying to plug those gaps in support for them, including the self-employed.

But must we really have to have the debate with the chancellor yet again about why he has to delay making businesses contribute to furlough from next month and why the scheme must be extended for as long as it takes?

That’s the key here. It’s far better to have people paying taxes than sitting on the dole.

My starting point when we first entered discussions back in March last year was the German model for short-time working and how, when its economy goes into a cyclical decline in the industrial heartlands, the working week is halved and the company and state pick up the wage bill between them.

Back last September I wrote of how Spain had become the latest country to extend its pay protection scheme for as long as it takes, following Germany, the Netherlands and France.

Yet the UK continued to look on aimlessly as jobs, families and communities were thrown under the bus as it refused, until far too late, to confirm an extension. Businesses and workers couldn’t wait then to know whether or what continued support might be forthcoming and they cannot wait now. 

Any shoots of recovery we see now are very, very fragile and coming from a very low base. Given the chancellor’s stubborn failure to keep his promise to provide targeted support for hard-hit sectors, plus the mess made with travel advice bringing further ruin to aviation, and so further damage to the industries depending on that sector like aircraft manufacture, this government’s incoherence and ideological rigidity has caused our people tremendous, needless harm.

The currently silent Sunak has to now step up.  It’s time to repeat what has worked through these frightening times. Furlough works, business support works, loading people with debt, insecurity and fear does not work.   It’s time to get back round that table, chancellor.  We’re ready to get to work now before still more companies go to the wall, taking thousands of good jobs with them, and our post-Covid recovery becomes a slower and more distant prospect.

By Steve Turner, Unite assistant general secretary

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