High street retailer Next and home delivery specialist Ocado have become the latest companies to announce cuts to sick pay for unvaccinated staff forced to self-isolate, just days after furniture giant Ikea said it would be pushing the same policy.
Sometimes presented as a public health measure, in reality, this is a divide-and-rule tactic intended to push through cost-cutting, as Morrisons’ chief executive was honest enough to admit. Every socialist and trade unionist should oppose it.
Businesses are using the pandemic as a cover.
These companies have form. Ocado slashed its workers’ pay last year, leaving some being paid below the minimum wage, despite the huge new demands of home deliveries. Meanwhile, Ikea first announced cuts to sick pay for its staff in October 2020, long before vaccines were available.
A union rep at the company’s Glasgow branch, Richie Venton, was sacked for telling workers about this. The company was later forced to pay him a cash settlement and backed off from its plans – until now. Instead of cutting everyone’s sick pay, the company has found a mechanism to divide its workforce and cut costs: pay the vaccinated, but not the unvaccinated who will receive the miserly Statutory Sick Pay entitlement.
The management of labour has become the defining economic issue of the pandemic: in its first few months, ‘key workers’ were designated and expected to carry on providing critical services when lockdown was imposed. As lockdowns eased, the argument shifted to the lack of critical workers, like lorry drivers – a shortage exacerbated in the UK by Brexit, but pervasive across the developed world. Instead, in the last few months, we’ve seen a fear develop amongst central bankers and financiers that pay might be “surging”. After a decade in which real wages were flat or even falling for most of us, higher pay is not a serious risk for inflation. The most obvious and the fairest response to higher inflation is to demand higher pay.
But nor should the costs of managing the ongoing pandemic be forced back onto workers. With major company profits surging over the last year, and the super-rich adding to their piles of cash even as the rest of us suffered, the case for higher taxes on profits and the wealthy is overwhelming. Instead, we have seen a push by companies to cut costs, and some troubling moves towards greater coercion and surveillance by government, including mandatory vaccination and vaccine passports.
When private companies start monitoring their employees’ health status in order to squeeze through cuts to their pay and conditions, we have arrived at an ugly fusion of the two – and a worrying harbinger for the future.
We need effective public health policy.
Businesses are using the pandemic as an excuse to through exploitative changes to workers’ pay and conditions. Governments are introducing coercive new measures under the guise of protecting public health. And holding this together is an ugly new politics of scapegoating the unvaccinated – a politics it is vital the left rally against.
If we want society to be safe, as we adapt to a world in which coronavirus is a constant in our lives, that safety won’t be achieved through coercion, but through effective public health policy – funding the NHS and social care, providing education campaigns on vaccination, making sure sick pay and other financial support is comprehensive.
Ultimately, vaccines are the best defence we have against the virus. However, we cannot let employers take advantage of that fact to justify the exploitation of their workers. We must be vigilant against state and employer overreach and authoritarianism.
James Meadway is an economist and Novara Media columnist.