It is now our second International Workers’ Day in some form of lockdown, and it is becoming increasingly clear the devastating impact which Covid-19 has had on workers.
We are all deeply indebted to our key workers who undertook enormous personal risk to ensure that people’s needs were met during the pandemic. I’m especially thankful to those working in the NHS, who worked under incredible pressure to see us through the largest public health crisis the country has faced in generations.
So many of these key workers are not properly paid, with many across sectors living on minimum or low wages. I had hoped, towards the start of the pandemic, that this would be a reckoning for the nature of work and redress pay inequalities. Perhaps it would allow us to see how essential supermarket staff, delivery drivers, dustbin men and cleaners were to the functioning of society. However, billionaire bosses have failed to give these workers the respect they deserve and ensure that they earn a fair wage. The Government has set a poor example by denying nurses an inflation-busting pay rise and therefore giving them a real-terms pay cut.
Further to this, we saw the definition of a key worker being stretched beyond the breaking point. Many who took on risks to their health and safety did not do so because of society’s needs, but rather pressure from their bosses. Many workers, such as estate agents and chefs, worked throughout the pandemic despite not working in essential sectors.
As the lockdown eases, I fear that workers may be expected to take on ever-greater risks. Now that businesses and shops are opening, teachers, supermarket staff, and many other workers will be more exposed to the virus than ever. As workers in these sectors tend to be younger, it’s unlikely that many would have received the vaccine. During discussions on vaccine passports, the vaccination status of those working at bars, restaurants and on flights was an afterthought.
Not only have many firms disregarded the safety of their workers, but some have even used the pandemic as a smoke screen to erode our hard-won rights. The use of Fire and Rehire tactics – where businesses forcefully dismiss workers and rehire them on worse contracts – has become widespread during the pandemic. I spoke out about this practice last week in Parliament, which places an immediate financial burden on workers, exposes them to more precarious relationships with employers and, in some cases, might even jeopardise retirement plans.
We have also seen soaring unemployment during this period, with many more facing the risk of redundancy when the furlough scheme comes to an end. The UK’s benefit claimant count has increased by 113.2% since March 2020. In Cynon Valley, the number of unemployment claimants has almost doubled from March 2020 to just over 3,000. Unemployment has a well-known negative effect on both mental and physical health. Rajendra Kadel, from Public Health Wales, has said: “A one per cent fall in employment in working-age people may be associated with about a two per cent increase in chronic health conditions. Coronavirus could result in 900,000 more working-age people in the UK developing chronic health conditions due to reduced employment.”
The cohort most affected by this fall in employment is the 16-24 age group. Under-25s have accounted for three in five jobs lost during the Covid-19 pandemic. I really feel for those leaving school or university who not only had their last year of education hindered, but now face an uncertain future. Welsh Labour is doing exciting work in creating a jobs and training guarantee for under-25s to ensure that young people continue to get meaningful opportunities during and beyond the pandemic. However, very little action has been taken by central Government to address these glaring issues.
This International Workers’ Day, the Government must step up to the mark. More needs to be done to protect and remunerate key workers, uphold our hard-won employment rights, and create lasting, high-quality jobs as we come out of lockdown. This pandemic could be a reckoning where we finally appreciate the value that workers create in society and rebuild in a way which shares wealth and opportunities more equitably in society.