COVID-19 pandemic reveals stark workplace inequalities

Office coronavirus

A report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has revealed that workers in so-called ‘insecure’ jobs – i.e. agency workers or those on zero-hours contracts – are twice as likely to have died from COVID-19 as those in more secure forms of employment.

According to the research, the COVID-19 mortality rate for male insecure workers was calculated at 51 per 100,000 (compared with 24 per 100,000 for male secure workers) and 25 per 100,000 for female insecure workers (compared with 13 per 100,000 for female secure workers).

Many of the UK’s 3.7m insecure workers were on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, with care workers, nurses and delivery drivers identified in the report as more likely to be on zero-hours or agency contracts.

Why are insecure workers more susceptible to COVID-19?

The report identified several key reasons why insecure workers are more likely to contract, and therefore die from, COVID-19, including:

  • Insecure workers are nearly 10 times less likely to receive sick pay than secure workers, which has led to individuals with COVID-19 still going into work because they can’t afford sick leave.
  • Insecure workers are at increased risk of exploitative working practices, such as dirty working environments. Migrant factory workers are also often housed in cramped shared accommodation, increasing the risk of outbreaks.
  • They are more likely to come into contact with people due to the peripatetic nature of their work. For example, temporary care staff were found to be contracting and transferring the virus as they moved from assignment to assignment.
  • Their employers are less likely to rigorously adhere to health and safety requirements.

Calls for an improved Statutory Sick Pay system

According to the ONS, 13% of workers receive no sick pay whatsoever while self-isolating, while the current level of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) would leave most workers who do receive it in a poor financial position.

Currently, SSP totals £96.35 per week – an 80% pay cut for the average worker. The report states: “The lack of adequate sick pay system forces people to make an impossible choice between isolating and paying their bills.”

Insecure workers also fall between the cracks of SSP eligibility criteria, with the requirement to earn at least £120 per week excluding 1.8m employees.

As a result, the TUC has made the following recommendations:

  • Abolish the earnings requirement for SSP to include more workers
  • Remove the waiting period for sick pay
  • Increase SSP to £330 per week – this is equal to a week’s pay at the real living wage
  • Provide funding so that employers can afford sick pay.

The union also called for a ban on zero-hours contracts.

A turning point?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the vital contributions insecure workers such as social care staff, COVID-19 testing staff and delivery drivers have made during this most difficult of years.

But in the year we Clapped for Carers, the TUC believes it is also time to reward insecure workers with the job security they deserve. Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, commented: “Lots of them are the key workers we all applauded… This must be a turning point.

If people can’t observe self-isolation when they need to, the virus could rebound. No one should have to choose between doing the right thing and putting food on the table.”

Maria Gallucci, Partner – employment, Woodfines Solicitors
Advertising feature with Woodfines Solicitors


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