Covid shouldn’t distract us from wanting to create a fairer and more equal economy. Levelling up pay and working conditions has never been more important, says TUC leader Frances O’Grady.
This year’s Good Business Festival takes place at a tough time for workers and business.
Britain is in the middle of global pandemic and many staff, and the companies that employ them, are anxious about their futures.
But Covid should not distract us from wanting to create a fairer and more equal economy. Levelling up pay and working conditions has never been more important.
While this crisis is one we have all shared, its burden is not.
Lower earners are three times as likely to have lost their job or been furloughed as high earners and are more than twice as likely to do jobs exposing them to health risks.
Low pay and insecurity
Low pay and precarious work have come to the fore during this pandemic.
Millions of the key workers getting us through this crisis – such as care workers, delivery drivers and supermarket staff – earn less than the real living wage and are on insecure contracts.
In social care alone seven in ten staff earn less than the real living wage. And one in four are on zero-hours contracts.
Praise is no substitute for a pay rise.
Everyone who works for a living ought to earn to a decent living and be treated with dignity at work. But huge swathes of our working population are struggling to make ends meet and too many are treated like disposable labour.
In 21st century Britain an employer can cancel a shift for a zero-hours worker who has already paid for their bus ticket to the job. That is not right.
A better way of doing things
So how do we go about changing things for the better?
I am pleased that the Good Business Festival has chosen “what about the workers?” as one of its themes for this year’s virtual conference.
Pay and working conditions need to be in the spotlight.
Over the past year the TUC has worked with a broad alliance including Julian Richer (founder of Richer Records) on the campaign to get zero-hours contracts banned – a policy unions have been campaigning for for years.
Julian rightly points out that: “I can’t imagine anything more likely to cause misery than not knowing day-to-day whether they will have enough money for food or rent. Maybe such contracts can work for a small minority of workers who have other significant household incomes or for students with wealthy parents. But, for the majority, this evil way of exploiting people at work must be banned – as indeed they are most European countries. If we can’t give working people basic security, we should be ashamed.”
We need more business people and leaders to speak out and work with unions. The huge rise in insecurity that we have seen since the financial crash has allowed bad employers to undercut good ones.
As we rebuild from the pandemic, ‘build back better’ has to be more than a slogan.
New employment bill
The government has promised us a new employment bill. We must keep up the pressure on them to deliver it.
Both unions and good employers should be seeking better labour standards.
So what does that mean in practice?
Well, for a start, giving unions a legal right to access workplaces to tell workers about the benefits of joining a union.
This helps workers gain better pay and conditions. And it is better for the economy with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) acknowledging that collective bargaining can boost productivity and deliver a fairer share of rewards.
Secondly, we need to ban zero-hours contracts. Leaving workers in the limbo over whether they’ll have any work from one day to the next has no place in modern Britain.
Thirdly, we must end bogus self-employment so that workers are not cheated out of basic rights, such as holiday pay and sick pay.
And lastly, it’s time to strengthen our joint liability laws so that large companies are legally responsible for the treatment of workers in their supply chains.
Fast fashion firm Boohoo has rightly been castigated for exploitation through subcontractors. In Leicester, garment workers producing clothing for Bo0hoo were found to be on poverty pay and infected with Covid.
But under current law they have no recourse to take action which would hold the head of the supply chain to account. That needs to change.
A fairer deal at work
We need a new settlement for Britain’s workers. Part of that – as highlighted above – is about strengthening workers’ rights. And part of it is about raising pay – especially for those on low-incomes.
The Good Business Festival is taking place during Living Wage Week and I would urge as many of you as possible to accredit with the Living Wage Foundation.
Paying the real Living Wage is not only the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.
A survey conducted by Cardiff Business School found that nine in ten (93%) Living Wage companies had benefited since paying the rate, with many reporting a significant boost to recruitment and retention and staff relations.
As many of you will know, happy and fairly rewarded employees are more productive.
But there is also a benefit to the wider economy too. We know from a number of studies that low-paid workers, on average, spend more of their wages in local economies.
Boosting their pay to a real Living Wage will deliver a shot in the arm to local businesses and help breath life back into our ailing high streets.
This is backed up by recent evidence from the Smith Institute which found that wider adoption of the real Living Wage could create enormous economic benefits of up to £1.1bn in the UK’s top ten city regions.
A new consensus for decent work
I was delighted to be asked to write this piece by the Good Business Festival.
The months and years ahead, as we emerge from this crisis, will be extremely challenging for unions and businesses.
But they are also an opportunity to build a new consensus for changing our labour market and working lives for the better.
Frances O’Grady is the first woman leader of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) – a role she began in 2013.
Frances has been an active trade unionist and campaigner all her working life. She has been employed in a range of jobs from shop work to the voluntary sector. Before the TUC, Frances worked for the Transport and General Workers Union where she worked on successful campaigns to stop the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and for the introduction of a national minimum wage, equal pay for women, and on a range of industrial wage claims.
Fair pay remains a core ambition – she was on the Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards, and has been a member of the Low Pay and the High Pay Commissions.
Photos by Museums Victoria.