“We will reduce overall levels of migration and give top priority to those with the highest skills and the greatest talents: scientists, engineers, academics and other highly-skilled workers… We will not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route. We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation.”

Those were the words of the UK government, published on 19th February 2020 as part of the announcement to move to a post-Brexit points-based immigration system, with a minimum requirement that potential immigrants to the UK earned at least £25,000 per year. 

Just a few weeks later, in the unfolding Covid-19 crisis, the same government published a list of essential workers whose children would be prioritised for education provision as schools shut down.  The list included many low paid roles that would not have met the £25,000 a year salary threshold: teachers, care workers, social workers and support staff; postal workers and distribution drivers; bus and coach drivers; bank customer service advisers; farm workers, food production workers; and sewerage workers to name just a few of the jobs covered. Cleaners became critical workers as companies, schools and universities embarked on deep-clean programmes to disinfect their premises. Supermarkets, stripped bare by panic buyers, began to recruit thousands of extra shop workers to try and keep shelves full, with Tesco alone calling for an extra 20,000 temporary staff. Within a few short weeks the notion of the critical skills that the nation needed was turned on its head.

In the heat of the crisis, it is absolutely right that the immediate focus should be on protecting our people and our economy.  We must all do whatever we can to slow down the spread of this highly contagious and potentially deadly virus, taking pressure off our over-stretched hospitals and ICUs.  The advice on social distancing is critical to this and UK citizens must take it seriously to stop the virus spreading.  There is no greater challenge facing the world at present and co-ordinated international action to defeat it, whilst maintaining the capacity of the global economy for recovery is essential.

However, it is also legitimate for us all to ask ourselves whether we could or should return to the way things were before this crisis engulfed the world.  As a Foundation invested in good work and well-being, the nature of work and the way in which workers are regarded and rewarded is of fundamental importance to us.  In recent years, many have argued that there is an inexorable journey to greater automation, reduced labour and greater reliance on artificial intelligence.  Opinion has been fiercely divided on whether this would represent a threat or an opportunity for workers.  However, whichever way you see the issue, the assumptions underpinning those opinions seem to be from a distant age.  Perhaps it takes a crisis such as the Covid-19 situation to show us the folly of our ways?

Who in public life would now dare to describe those jobs listed as essential as “low-skilled” as Home Secretary Priti Patel called them in an interview on BBC Breakfast in February?

The power of organised labour in the form of trades unions was evident from the fact that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a job protection fund to pay 80% of the wages of employees furloughed by their employer to avert redundancies and protect roles, following intense discussions with the TUC.  At a stroke, 30 million people were protected, thanks to the efforts of trades unions.

In contrast to this were five million self-employed, largely unorganised workers, who were offered the equivalent of statutory sick pay - £95 a week – which Health Secretary Matt Hancock was forced to admit was not enough to live on.  Alarm was also raised by ‘gig-economy’ workers on zero-hour contracts.  As restaurants, pubs and cafes closed, demand for home delivery of takeaways soared and suddenly Uber Eats and Deliveroo couriers were critical to keeping the nation fed, but their calls for protection on the whole did not carry the same weight as the millions of union-organised workers.

Perhaps we could learn some lessons from this crisis?  Maybe low-waged or on a precarious zero-hours contract doesn’t mean low-skilled or non-essential?  Maybe, once this is all over, we will all come to look at the workers who carried on delivering vital work while the rest of us were sent home in a different way? The value of trades unions and the power of organising workers has been proved beyond doubt.  While millions of us are working from home, furloughed or self-isolating, perhaps we could ponder a future where work is given a fairer value by society and workers flock to join a union?

Ian Waddell