Opinion: Protect UK worker's wages now and we'll feel the economic benefits in the future

March 19, 2020

Our country faces not just a public health crisis with the coronavirus outbreak but an economic one. It is incumbent on us all – all political stripes – to find a way through this in a way that keeps people safe, keeps people in work, paid and out of poverty with our industries and the economy intact.

As a trade union leader, I don’t have a silver bullet - but I talk to lots of workers and employers and I do have a number of ideas where we can start. Firstly, keeping people safe means the public and public servants alike.


Every frontline worker should have the protective equipment they need. We’ve had members down tools because management weren’t giving adequate protection, so sadly this does need to be said.


By the same token, I do not know why there is no mass testing of those with Covid-19 symptoms. If there is a good reason, we need to hear it from the Government because uncertainty breeds risk, not just for people going to work while contagious, but for our first responders who are on the frontline.


The Government must bring forward emergency legislation that provides an enhanced employment rights framework to protect workers and the general public, guarantees full pay for workers who contract the virus or require medical suspension to self-isolate, and removes the £118 Statutory Sick Pay threshold.


Where that is not possible, or where workers are on insecure contracts, the welfare system must be underpinned with a baseline universal income.


This, in turn, will link to the ability of the economy to recover. Italy has shown us the way - mortgage and rent payments need to be suspended to avoid mounting debt and evictions. When we come out the other side, we need people to be able to contribute to their local economies straight away.


Tens of thousands of our members face the devastating choice over the coming weeks; do the right thing, self-isolate and help keep the British public safe – or lose the wages they desperately need to put a roof over their heads and feed their families.


Entire industries are in jeopardy. Hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk. To put no finer a point on it, without urgent action the economy will fall off a cliff.


The announcement of an Economic and Business Response Committee is welcome, but the form this takes is key. We need cross-party, cross-government, internationally coordinated action that includes trade unions alongside employers and politicians.


Taskforces must be on a sector by sector basis - the challenges in airports will be much different to those in chemicals, ports or "just in time" manufacturing and again different from supermarkets and logistics.


Those same sector taskforces who deal with the impact of Covid-19 should be developing sector recovery plans now. Large scale government investment and modern public works programmes will likely be needed to aid economic and social recovery, similar to the "new deal" programme in the USA in the 1930s.


Government loans and contingency funds may be needed to businesses facing rapid loss of custom or supplies, such support must be linked to securing wages and jobs.


The UK should replicate the approach of Denmark in guaranteeing the payment of wages where closures or lay-offs are unavoidable – 75 per cent from Government and 25 per cent from employers. Where there are significant sums of investment required in a business then the Government should take a public stake in the long-term interests of all taxpayers.


The country needs confidence that our government has a plan for our health, our jobs and our living standards.


GMB is ready to play our part.


Tim Roache is the General Secretary of GMB union


First published in iNews

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