The older we get, the quicker the years seem to fly by, but 2020 was a clear exception – it was the year time stood still.
And for key workers – from NHS staff to bus workers, supermarket staff to refuse workers, childminders to care workers and many more in between –this last year has no doubt felt like a lifetime.
This week a year ago, the government announced that all non-essential businesses would have to close under a blanket stay-at-home order. And exactly a year ago today (March 26) people came out to their doorsteps and their balconies, standing together united in a remarkable display of solidarity clapping for key workers under lockdown for the first time.
Thursday evening clapping became a weekly ritual as the nation collectively paid tribute to the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of essential workers who would keep the country going in this unprecedented time of crisis – often at great risk to themselves and their families.
It is estimated that more than 600 frontline health and social care workers in the UK have died from coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 65 bus workers have died after contracting the virus in London alone. It is not known precisely how many thousands of other key workers have died while working to help others, but we know that people in low-paid occupations, many of them essential, are nearly twice as likely to be killed by coronavirus.
For many key workers, Thursday evening clapping in those early months of the pandemic has effectively turned into a slap in the face.
Last year, the government announced that pay for non-NHS public sector workers, many of whom perform absolutely essential work such as refuse workers, would be frozen. After this announcement in November, there was a justifiable outcry from public sector workers.
“We’ve worked throughout this pandemic, Monday to Friday, handling bins and refuse sacks to then go home to our families,” Unite rep and refuse worker Simon Cotton told the Mirror.
“We’re not immune from the virus, it doesn’t avoid us because we’re key workers,” he added. “We’re emptying everyone’s bins, keeping the streets clean, and then going home to our loved ones, putting them at risk too.
“We’ve been on the front line and haven’t stopped. It just shows you how out of touch this Tory government is.”
Then in March, in another blow to key workers, the government said that for NHS staff, who very literally put their lives on the line to save others, they would be recommending only a one per cent pay rise this year – after a decade of pay freezes under austerity, this amounts to a decisive pay cut.
This week, UNITElive spoke to pharmacists, who like other NHS workers, have played an absolutely vital role throughout the pandemic. Pharmacist and Unite’s Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists rep Seema Varma said she had only word for the pay rise announcement – ‘disbelief’.
“NHS staff have gone into work day in and day out caring for sick patients at great personal risk to themselves,” she said.
“Many have sadly passed away, while others have experienced their first mental health episode as a result of the stress of the pandemic. Additionally, they’ve had to deal with the stress of potentially bringing Covid home to their families, or job losses within the family. But they go into work every day – because they care about their patients and colleagues. The pay rise announcement was a slap in the face.”
While the government may not have a direct say over pay for key workers in the private sector, such as supermarket staff and many care workers, with the stroke of a pen, the government could significantly increase the statutory minimum wage. This move would give an instant pay rise to more than 2m workers, a huge swathe of whom are key workers.
Instead, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an increase in the minimum wage to a paltry £8.91 an hour – significantly below the real Living Wage of £9.50 and less than the £10 an hour that Unite and other unions have called for.
Individual companies also have a huge role to play in rewarding our key worker heroes who’ve not only kept our nation going in this time of crisis but who have contributed massively to many companies’ success, both before and throughout the pandemic. While many good companies have shown their appreciation, far too many have failed their loyal workforce.
Take supermarket giant Sainsbury’s, for example, which enjoyed a major boost to revenues over the last year at a time when many other retail businesses were forced to shut under lockdown.
In February, Sainsbury’s announced a meagre 20p pay rise for its staff – and additional staff bonuses, which the company insisted would make up for the low pay offer, have in fact worsened the financial situation for many workers.
‘Pathetic pay rise’
“These bonuses will cause reductions and interruptions to payments of universal credit and working tax credits that many Sainsbury’s staff rely on,” Unite national officer Bev Clarkson explained, calling the pay rise ‘pathetic’.
“Over the last year, Sainsbury’s staff have risked their health to keep the nation fed. They kept Sainsbury’s coffers full as they did so, even as other businesses were going to the wall,” she said.
Meanwhile, many bus workers, who again were absolutely vital in the pandemic response by, for example, helping other key workers get to work, are now likewise being failed by their employers.
More than 400 bus drivers working for Go North West in Manchester are in the midst of a bitter dispute over plans to fire and rehire and them on vastly inferior terms and conditions. The bus drivers have been on continuous all-out strike action since February 28.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that parent company Go-Ahead has been paying shareholder dividends even as it plans to slash pay for its bus drivers.
“Go-Ahead is intent on using taxpayers’ money to pay dividends to fat cat shareholders at the same time that they are cutting the pay of bus drivers who have kept the service running throughout the pandemic,” said Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton.
“Go-Ahead care more about keeping its shareholders happy, rather than the wellbeing of bus drivers, who they expect to work even longer hours for no extra pay,” he added.
“Go-Ahead’s attitude demonstrates all that is wrong about the UK’s privatised bus service.”
Fire and rehire
While Go North West bus drivers, like many workers across the country, are fighting ‘fire and rehire’ tactics through industrial action, Unite is also aiming to fight the growing practice in the halls of power. The union is calling for the practice to be banned.
This week, a Unite-commissioned survey of MPs and business leaders found that an overwhelming majority want to see workers’ rights strengthened.
The poll also found that a majority of business and industry leaders would like to see more generous terms and conditions for sick pay, and that post-pandemic planning is the top priority for MPs and business leaders.
As a net overall score, post-pandemic planning (83 per cent) and extending the furlough scheme (76 per cent) remain the top two priorities for the government to address.
“These findings show that there’s no clamour for going back to business as usual after the pandemic. Given the wide support among MPs – including one fifth of Tory MPs – and business leaders for improved workers’ rights, I urge the government to build on this,” said Unite general secretary Len McCluskey.
“Seize the initiative and move to arrest the latest abuse of UK workers’ rights, the disease of fire and rehire that is ripping through our workplaces,” he added. “Millions of workers are now fighting to hang onto the wages that support their families as contracts signed in good faith are being destroyed by bad employers without consequence.
“Fire and rehire belongs in the dark ages, not a modern-day nation, so I say to the government do the right thing: make the first law of the post-pandemic period one that bans this hideous practice.”
Now that the year where time stood still is over Unite believes it’s time to move on to employers and government doing the decent thing. Like paying people a proper wage for the incredible service they’ve given and sacrifices they have made; to stop using the pandemic as an excuse to abuse workers and trounce upon their rights; to end fire and rehire and similar practices – and to say to all of our workers wherever they are – a massive thank you. We couldn’t have survived without you.
By Hajera Blagg
Pic by Mark Thomas