Unite has called on the government to change the status of self-employed and precarious workers to employees so that they can immediately benefit from the chancellor’s wage protection scheme, where 80 per cent of wages of workers’ who are forced to stop working because of the Covid-19 epidemic are covered by the state.
The call comes ahead of an expected announcement on Thursday (March 27) afternoon from chancellor Rishi Sunak who is set to unveil the government’s support package for the self-employed and other precarious workers, who, at about 5m people, comprise 15 per cent of the UK workforce.
While millions of employees paid through PAYE were able to breathe a sigh of relief last week when the chancellor announced the wage furlough scheme, where the majority of people’s wages will be guaranteed, self-employed workers have been left in the dark so far.
Sunak has said that the government was working as quickly as it could to develop a system of earnings support for self-employed workers, who at present only have recourse to Universal Credit, but he said that it would be complex and take time.
But Unite general secretary Len McCluskey highlighted on Thursday (March 26) that it would in fact be “very easy” for the chancellor to change the status of self-employed and precarious workers to that of employees, which would, he said, “open the door to them to access the same rights and protections as the directly employed”.
“I urge you to do so when you address the country today,” he said in a message to the chancellor.
The call comes a day after UniteLive highlighted the situation in construction, where a majority of workers are self-employed. Without any wage support, construction workers have been forced to continue working on sites where social distancing is impossible, risking their and their families’ health in the process.
Unite has said it recognises that not all of the five million precarious workers could be defined as employees. But in sectors like construction, cleaning and hospitality where workers have a clear tie to an employer the change in status could have an immediate and positive impact.
Black cab drivers, who are self-employed, have also called for immediate support from the government after demand for their work has plummeted as the epidemic rages on.
The taxi drivers, who are keen to play a role in supporting emergency services and the vulnerable and elderly, say they need wage support as well as relief on payments and fees associated with their job, such as licence plate fees.
“A fortnight ago, our taxi driver members were looking forward to a lucrative period in the run-up to and through the Easter holiday period – now many of them face severe financial hardship,” said Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton.
Unite has also warned the government that not all employers, despite government support are doing right by their workers.
The Guardian reported on Thursday (March 26) that more than 1,000 people had contacted MPs to report they were still being forced to go into work despite being non-essential workers, with many noting that social distancing was not being practiced in their workplaces.
Labour MP and business select committee chair Rachel Reeves said, “From the evidence we’ve received it’s clear that many businesses are still not doing the right thing. This must change now. This is a health emergency – it cannot be business as usual.
“Workplaces, even those deemed essential, should be doing all they can to ensure that their workers are able to work from home or, if they do have to attend work, that they can undertake social distancing,” she added.
McCluskey also said Unite has been inundated with such reports, including of employers choosing to dismiss their workers instead of using the government’s furloughed workers scheme.
“That is why I am saying today to employers that if you dismiss Unite members that you could have retained or you send them home on poverty sick pay when there are provisions for them to be paid at 80 per cent of their salary at no cost to you, Unite will pursue you using every legal channel available to us,” he noted.
“It is not just the government who says it will do whatever it takes. Unite will pull every lever we can to defend jobs, keep people safe and protect incomes.”