Workers need a coronavirus plan - today

Unite AGS Steve Turner: we must protect jobs and communities

Reading time: 7 min

Among all the analysis of government actions to address the public health issues stemming from the coronavirus pandemic little has been said about the impact on workers forced onto short-time working, temporary lay-off or even dismissal.


Right now, we need nothing less than for our economy to be put on a wartime footing – a ‘Marshall Plan’ approach, with co-ordinated action at every level to protect jobs, communities and public services while keeping factories, power stations and infrastructure strong.


We urgently need government to step up in the national interest and heed our call for a national cross-industry summit, involving unions and industry bodies, to make the necessary preparations to keep people safe and the economy stable. Unite the Union is ready to meet at any time.


We’re awash with advice on social distancing, personal hygiene and avoiding unnecessary contact with the elderly or vulnerable. There’s much debate about whether or when the UK will follow many countries in forcing the closure of schools, workplaces, shops and public spaces, suspending public gathering and all mass spectator sports, or even going into a full state of emergency lockdown.


And, of course, it’s right that we demand those who are excluded from Statutory Sick Pay due to their employment status or because they earn less than the minimum income threshold are given day one sick pay at the rate of the living wage, rather than the paltry £94.25 a week. Only then will the co-operation and support of workers be won.


Government must also introduce measures to ensure housing security, rent and mortgage protection, the ongoing provision of childcare to emergency workers and utilities such as water, gas, electricity and communications, alongside medicine and food price controls.


We need to think creatively. This is no time for ideology, asylum seekers and refugees with the appropriate qualifications, such as medical professionals, must be able to use their skills in the service of the nation and the five-week delay in universal credit payments must end.


Further, we need to secure national food distribution and ensure that those self-isolating or vulnerable, including children receiving free school dinners and families reliant on food banks, continue to receive daily hot meals with local authorities utilising closed school kitchens as community assets.


But protecting against the devastating economic impact of coronavirus is a major challenge too and for working people the risks are very real and go beyond health concerns.


In schools and universities, hospitality, retail, public transport and aviation the impact of forced closure, restrictions on movement and even a public fear of infection will quickly result in millions of workers facing forced lay offs, with millions of others made to leave work to look after children, or elderly or vulnerable relatives.


In our manufacturing industries workers face the additional problem of major supply chain disruption from the shutdown of Chinese and now European factories, resulting in a shortage of parts and components and delays in supply forcing production stoppages.


Addressing this requires clear and determined action by both government at every level and corporations alongside the co-operation and support of workers and their unions. Immediate action beyond the measures introduced in last week’s budget are needed to ensure this, but also to protect jobs and secure the confidence of communities.


The government must extend the suspension of business rates to all businesses operating in affected sectors, irrespective of size, and provide emergency fund support to local authorities to make up the shortfall in funding and protect essential public service provision.

Interest-free ‘bridging loans’ must be made available alongside the suspension of VAT, duties and other taxes due to the Treasury to address cashflow difficulties and keep people in work and on full pay if subjected to lay-off.

Industry must be given access to interest-free capital finance to ensure down time is utilised as an opportunity to bring forward investment.

Action must be taken to protect the long-term interests of pension schemes and corporations vulnerable to capital flight from the stock market, including direct state support, intervention and measures to place core industries under full public control where necessary to protect jobs, skills and the wider national interest.

The introduction of a ‘temporary short-time working scheme’ similar to the German ‘Kurtzarbeit’ scheme would enable the use of downtime to upskill and retrain workers to meet the challenges of automation, digitisation and climate change.

Car and other industrial plants facing short-time working must be called on to switch their manufacturing facilities to producing vital equipment for hospitals such as ventilators and respirators. They have the skills and equipment, what better way to keep people in work?

The government must learn from this crisis. Globalisation has created fractured, vulnerable supply chains and the coronavirus shutdown has exposed the vulnerability inbuilt into modern advanced manufacturing and just-in-time production systems. If ever the case for insourcing and reshoring was clear, it is now, along with the need to address the climate emergency and a just transition to sustainable jobs.


Reshoring supply chains not only provides good jobs and security of production but addresses concerns over the destructive carbon footprint and the race to the bottom in wages and labour standards created by globalisation.


We also need investment now in battery, hydrogen and synthetic fuel technologies and manufacturing alongside the UK manufacture of vehicles, including public transport, local domestic energy generation, storage and heat pump technologies.


Our national and corporate infrastructure must be climate change ready, with a national network of recharging facilities, industrial carbon capture, storage and use, investment in digitised homes and communities, integrated public transport networks, green energy generation including nuclear and a strategy to retrofit our homes with energy efficient materials.


The lessons from the coronavirus crisis demand action and a long overdue resetting of our economy. These actions have been demanded by trade unions and many others in civil society for a generation and more. The virus exposes the fragility of late-stage capitalism and requires major steps to make our society resilient.


If governments fail to learn these lessons their betrayal of working people, our families and communities, will not simply haunt them at the ballot box but will lead to mass civil and public disorder the likes of which we’ve not seen in decades. From every crisis comes an opportunity and there simply cannot be a return at the end of this one to business as usual.


This comment was first published in Tribune Magazine on Sunday (March 16).

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