Coronavirus Shows How the Government Fails Precarious Workers

by Beth Perkin and Charlotte England

21 March 2020

On Friday evening, chancellor Rishi Sunak made some big announcements: after much public pressure, restaurants, pubs and gyms would finally be closing. Meanwhile, the government would be paying up to 80% of the wages of those not working. 

This unprecedented pledge was met with widespread praise, some of it coming from the most unexpected of places. Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady took to Twitter to compliment Sunak’s leadership and called the package “a breakthrough”. While Unison general secretary Dave Prentis commented that those concerned about their jobs and livelihoods would “feel hugely reassured”. 

Despite the outpouring of support, these new measures fail to address the needs of the country’s 2m low earners who are not entitled to statutory sick pay, along with those who are self-employed and seeing work dry up as a result of the crisis. 

In the UK, there are 39,000 pubs and bars, employing 450,000 people between them, and many are staffed by precarious workers on insecure contracts for whom the measures do not apply. 

Of the three workers Novara Media had been speaking to before the announcement, none are entitled to the new benefit.

And with the government content to leave millions of vulnerable workers at the mercy of their employers, the pandemic is serving to highlight the divide that has been developing between secure and precarious workers over the course of the last decade. 

“I’m waiting on about £700 in invoices”.

Rob is a freelance musician and bike courier. 

Even up until Monday I was out gigging at a dance school in Ipswich. I’d also been commissioned for a new piece and had months of rehearsals and performances lined up until June. 

Then all of a sudden everything got cancelled. I’ve been told I’m getting paid for the work in Ipswich and the show is being rescheduled, which is good news but doesn’t help me in the short-term. Also, I’m waiting on about £700 in invoices I sent off a few weeks ago, but who knows if I’ll get those. 

I still have to pay rent in a week, which means either calling up my landlord and saying you’re not going to get it, or finding the money somehow. I know some people are talking about rent strikes. 

I’m trying to get work with [courier service] Stuart but don’t know if a lockdown will affect me being able to go out on my bike. They’ve told us if we get coronavirus we can apply for sick pay, but the process looks pretty complicated – you need two letters from two separate doctors. They seem to be singing the government’s praises in their emails, so if that’s anything to go by, it would probably be something similar to statutory sick pay, which wouldn’t even cover my rent. 

I’m not particularly thrilled about having to work as a courier right now, but then again I never am. In a way, it’s actually less dangerous given there’s barely any traffic on the roads. It’s strange that delivery drivers are now becoming essential after being that we’re unskilled and worthless for such a long time. 

Going forward, I can’t see any other way of solving these problems than with a rent freeze. A mortgage freeze is great, but renters like me need support too. 

We also need more information about what’s going on. I’ve learnt more from Twitter than I have from central government. Everyday I’m waiting for something new to come out so I can change my plans. 

My family are back up in Liverpool telling me to come home, but it’s too expensive to leave anyway. 

I’m in a relatively OK situation, but what about the more vulnerable people. If I’m struggling, what about them? 

“It’s upsetting to be treated so appallingly”.

Anna is a full-time catering supervisor. 

I’m employed by a private company that’s contracted to do the food for a medical college. 

On Wednesday we had a full staff meeting. Management came in and announced that we’d be going on unpaid leave starting from Monday and that we had two choices; either accept the unpaid leave or be put on mandatory short-term lay-offs. Afterwards, they sent and asked us to sign a document which basically said we were voluntarily taking unpaid leave. They also told us we couldn’t request any sick pay or holiday pay because it had been frozen and that we wouldn’t be getting any money full-stop. 

I spoke to a few lawyers who told me not to sign the document and to advise others to do the same. They also said it was unlawful to withhold our statutory sick pay. 

The chief operating officer of the college said he’d support us but they don’t have much of a say over us. All in-house staff are getting full salary pay, so there’s a massive difference in treatment. 

I’ve organised a group of us to try and fight this, but everyone I work with is an immigrant and understandably terrified of losing their job and rights. Because of this, a lot of them have caved and signed the document. 

I’ve told the company that I’m refusing to sign it- as have a number of my colleagues – and have requested to enter into a dialogue to make sure that they’re sticking to the law and giving us the pay we’re entitled to. 

It’s upsetting to be treated so appallingly – especially in the way management is taking advantage of immigrant workers – some of them have worked here for decades. But they know a lot of them won’t know their rights and probably won’t fight for them because they’re scared of losing their jobs. 

“We have nothing to lose”. 

Charlie is a full-time bartender. 

We’ve been on zero-hours contracts for as long as Student Central [a student society of the University of London] has been running. Because it’s a student bar they seem to think they can treat people like they don’t need an income even though about half the employees, myself included, aren’t students and are using the job as our main source of income. 

When they emailed us to tell us the bar was closed, there wasn’t a single word about pay, not even an acknowledgement that we would be worried about it. When we asked about sick pay they just said “questions were being asked” and to apply for universal credit. 

I’d be very surprised at them putting effort into making sure we get a fair deal because everything about the employment practices they’ve had since I started working for them suggest they don’t give a shit about us. 

I’ve been a member of the IWGB union since around November – one of my colleagues had joined but none of the others had. A union rep helped us draft a letter demanding that we’re paid the average monthly earnings for the last three months for the foreseeable future. All 13 of the bar staff have co-signed and it’s been emailed to senior management. Everyone is prepared to take action now because we have nothing to lose. 

Zero-hours contracts need to be banned. As long as they still exist, workers are always going to be put in situations of desperation – and whenever there’s a crisis, like this one, it’s only going to get worse. 

The fact that we’ve been put into a position where we either have to win or starve is fucking horrible, but we’re ready to fight and that’s cause for hope. 

Beth Perkin is a filmmaker and commissioning editor at Novara Media

Charlotte England is a commissioning editor at Novara Media. She has also written for the Guardian, the Independent and VICE, among others

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