Greater protection urged for UK’s lowest paid workers

Low-paid workers, who have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, should be given more control over pay and working hours to drive up employment standards as the lockdown lifts, a report by the Resolution Foundation has proposed.

The think-tank is among several groups calling for the UK to place a higher value on the workers who have kept essential services running through the Covid-19 lockdown, and to improve job security for others whose precarious employment terms have left them among the worst affected by the crisis.

“There’s now widespread consensus that we need a new settlement for Britain’s lowest-paid workers,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. “It was the hard work and dedication of our key workers that got us through this crisis — and it will be working people that get us out of recession too.”

Lower earners are three times as likely to have lost their job or been furloughed since March as high earners, and are more than twice as likely to do jobs exposing them to health risks, according to the Resolution Foundation report, which sets out proposals to improve working conditions and job security, as well as pressing on with the steady increases already planned in the minimum wage.

It calls for workers to have a right to a contract that reflects their actual hours; a right to advance notice of work schedules; and to compensation where shifts are cancelled at short notice.

Giving workers at large companies a right to choose whether they are paid weekly or monthly could make a big difference to families with tight cash flow, judging by the prevalence of payday lending, the Resolution Foundation said, adding that workers in sectors with high rates of churn could be given greater job security by cutting the qualifying period for unfair dismissal to one year, from the current two years.

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However, enforcement of workers’ rights may be even more important, the report added.

At present, the UK largely relies on workers taking cases to employment tribunals — which low earners are less likely to risk. The Resolution Foundation said employment rights seemed to be “systematically ignored” in some areas, such as hand car washes or parts of the cleaning and hospitality sectors.

Its report calls for the government to put substantial resources behind the Single Enforcement Body it is creating to police the labour market, and to step up funding for health and safety inspections by local authorities.

But the think-tank also argued the UK should follow the example of New Zealand in setting up new wage boards, composed of employers, workers and independent representatives, to drive up standards in sectors where poor working conditions are endemic — starting with social care.

The Resolution Foundation acknowledged that the government was unlikely to embark on major labour market reforms given the immediate need to prevent a surge in long-term unemployment.

But it said that beginning the work of reform with social care “would reflect the prominence it has achieved during this pandemic” and provide a model for the larger sectors, hospitality and retail, that employ almost half of low-paid workers.


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