Over lockdown many of us have clapped for carers and put a rainbow up in the window. Public warmth spread from NHS staff to our shop workers, delivery drivers, administrators and kitchen staff. Now we need to translate this display of public support to deliver real change for lower paid workers in all sectors – empathy alone is not going to pay the bills.
If we look back to before the Covid-19 crisis, in-work poverty had risen up the policy agenda. Around 4 million people were heading out to work in the UK’s private sector firms and in public sector roles whilst caught in the grip of poverty. 70% of children pulled into poverty before the crisis were in a household where at least one adult worked. Too many employees are held back by pay below the real Living Wage; underemployment; insecure contracts and unstable shift patterns.
Covid-19 has already driven huge challenges in the labour market and we are only in the early days of the economic crisis. Vacancies have fallen in every region of the UK and are between a third and a fifth of levels a year ago. Around a quarter of the UK’s workforce have been furloughed and the rise in the unemployment count in April was six times greater than for any month in the last 50 years. The impact of the crisis is falling disproportionally on households already swept up in poverty. Workers in low paid and insecure work who were already struggling to stay afloat are more likely to lose their job, have their hours reduced, be furloughed and to not be able to work at home. Lower paid workers are more exposed to both greater health and economic risk in this crisis. It is not right that nearly half of our care workers are paid less than the real Living Wage.
Now, as the discussion opens up on the type of recovery we need, it’s time to think about how work can be made better for low paid key workers and for those who will return to low paid work in sectors like hospitality. Whilst attention is rightly focused on tackling unemployment, we also need to see good jobs at the heart of the recovery so more households can be unlocked from poverty.
As Local Authorities and City Regions move on to their economic recovery strategies a fundamental building block will be the quality of jobs. Local and national government financial support for businesses will be critical in the recovery but this needs to come with robust expectations on job quality. Many areas have been developing good work charters working with employers and other stakeholders on programmes to accredit and develop good work. Greater adoption of these in the recovery will be important to ensure the good work agenda is not dropped. Local authorities will of course continue to be anchor institutions to drive good work through their own employment and procurement. Local authorities need to continue to campaign for greater investment in the care sector and the long-term structural reform to deliver good quality care jobs.
How businesses behave will determine whether the recovery can deliver better jobs. Many businesses have supported their employees through topping up furlough pay or paying additional pay bonuses. Businesses are facing an incredibly challenging operating environment and will be facing difficult workforce decisions. However, taking the low road to provide low paid and insecure work will mean they will fail to benefit from the business rewards of better work such as well-motivated employees nor will they be acting responsibly towards their community if they have benefited from financial support. Responsible investors were focusing more on firms’ employment practices before the crisis and need to continue to do so.
At a national level, policymakers need a strategy to ensure recovery embeds good work. They have many levers at their disposal: embedding more of the recommendations from the Taylor Review; ensuring employment rights are not eroded as the implementation period comes to an end; continuing the aspiration to raise the National Living Wage; building in good jobs to infrastructure investment and skills and employment programmes need to lead to long term opportunities and help people escape low paid work.
People locked in poverty both before and as a result of this crisis need a range of solutions. Good jobs must form part of our national recovery from this crisis.
Louise Woodruff – Policy and Partnerships Manager, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Shaping a recovery that reduces poverty: An economic discussion series from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
JRF’s new economic discussion series aims to put people restricted by poverty at the heart of the post-coronavirus economic conversation. We will be presenting new JRF research and recommendations on how to reshape an economy that reduces poverty and getting ideas from a range of economic experts. There will be a number of publications and webinars throughout 2020. Join JRF for their next webinar – ‘Levelling up the economy beyond Covid-19’ – on Tuesday 23rd June 2020. Click here to find out more and register for the event.