True human cost of Covid-19

Unite reveals pandemic’s impact on workplaces across UK

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A new survey of over 1,000 Unite representatives shows a surge in mental health issues at work amid the coronavirus crisis.

As well as the health toll, the devastating impact of Covid-19 has been felt in the world of work. Jobs and indeed whole sectors are at risk, with new challenges and strains being put on workers and their representatives.

Unite workplace reps are at the forefront of dealing with the crisis at work across all sectors of the economy, and a report published this week based on a survey of nearly 1,400 Unite reps conducted in the last week gives valuable insights into how the crisis is being dealt with and what should happen next.

Employer responses to the crisis: responsible or reckless?

Asked how their employer is dealing with the crisis, nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of respondents report that their employer is behaving responsibly. Examples include protecting workers’ health and safety in respect of things like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and social distancing. However, nearly 1 in 5 (18 per cent) said that their employer is behaving recklessly to the crisis citing practices such as lack of PPE.

Nearly half (46 per cent) said that their employer “has gone over and above its legal duties to protect staff, their jobs, wages and terms and conditions”. However, over one in ten respondents (14 per cent) said “my employer is taking advantage of the crisis”. Examples include attacking terms and conditions, forcing workers to take annual leave, and making redundancies rather than using the government’s job retention scheme (JRS).

Initial analysis suggests that ‘responsible’ employers are negotiating with Unite reps and, where this is happening, there is a ‘Unite premium’ with those employers going ‘over and above’ their legal duties such as paying full pay to furloughed workers (above the 80 per cent provided by the JRS) or paying above statutory sick pay (SSP).

Mental health: a hidden human cost of the lockdown

Mental health tops members’ issues that reps are dealing with. Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) report having to deal with an increase in members reporting mental health-related issues, revealing a hidden human cost of the lockdown.

Unite is calling on employers to take a proactive approach to dealing with employees’ mental health challenges immediately as workers return to the workforce and begin to adjust to revised working conditions. This must include carrying out risk assessments with Unite’s involvement.

Other issues that respondents reported increases in include ‘concerns over pregnancy, maternity, paternity, adoption or other family leave’ (40 per cent), ‘employers or managers exploiting the isolation of individual members’ (33 per cent), ‘bullying’ (26 per cent), ‘issues related to disabilities’ (24 per cent), ‘members applying for Universal Credit’ (9 per cent), and ‘discrimination based on equality’ (i.e. sex, race, disability, LGBT+, age, religious, nationality discrimination) (8 per cent) (see figure below).

Increases in members’ issues dealt with by Unite reps during the Covid-19 crisis

Note: (Question: In your capacity as a Unite rep, have you had to deal with an increase in the following during the crisis? (Tick as many as apply) (N=797)

Public services and key workers

Not surprisingly, and in tune with the mood of the country generally, Unite reps are hugely supportive of our public services and key workers, with 98 per cent agreeing that ‘public service workers are undervalued for the work that they do and should be paid more’. The same proportion agreed that ‘the crisis has shown that more workers must be recognised as ‘key workers’ than previously thought’.

All respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Government must act to make sure that our public services get the funding and support they need’. However, less than half (42 per cent) think that the government actually will.

From crisis to change: What should be in the Government’s strategy?

Whilst dealing with the damaging effects of the crisis Unite reps – who have been a critical part of dealing with it at work – overwhelmingly see coming out of the crisis as a chance to improve things and to do so significantly.

Over eight in ten respondents (85 per cent) said ‘we cannot return to the way things were, but this crisis presents an opportunity to do things better’.

Not only do Unite reps see an opportunity for change as we come out of the Covid-19 crisis, they have pretty strong views about what that change should look like. Asked what should be in the government’s strategy for after the crisis, there is overwhelming support for a ‘new economy, underpinned by secure employment and decent pay and conditions’ (99 per cent) and ‘putting workers and trade unions at the centre of a new economy, both in the workplace and society’ (98 per cent).

Equally important is a ‘more environmentally sustainable economy’ (97 per cent) putting Unite reps right at the heart of demands for a green industrial revolution and a ‘just transition’.

There is also strong support for ‘a stronger social security system’ (92 per cent) a ‘programme of state investment, including through extending public ownership’ (90 per cent), and ‘helping to pay for dealing with this crisis through fair and progressive taxation’ (86 per cent).

Recent polling shows how much the coronavirus crisis has transformed public opinion and produced a hunger for real change. The findings from this report show Unite reps in tune with that mood and well placed to help make it happen.


By John Earls, Unite director of research @john_earls


READ: Unite’s survey

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