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Why we need a new workers' rights settlement

Author: Klara Skrivankova, Grants Manager, Trust for London

Today, on International Workers' Day, Klara Skrivankova who works on our ‘Better Work’ programme reflects on how the world of work is changing, and why Living Wage and Living Hours must form the basis of a new workers' rights settlement post-crisis.

International Workers Day 2020 is marked by mass changes in the world of work. These are likely to be long-term.

Pre-pandemic data in our recently released London’s Poverty Profile showed a significant rise in in-work poverty over the last five years. Now, workers are also likely to face mass unemployment as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of London’s hospitality workers have already seen their jobs disappear. Our grantees tell us that those who were already in low pay, on zero-hour contracts and in the gig economy have seen their conditions deteriorate – pay cut, hours reduced, others facing pressures to work longer hours without necessary protective clothing. We have been hearing about cleaners who are too scared to go to work because they lack protective equipment, and about delivery drivers, warehouse and retail workers who have been threatened with dismissal if they raised concerns over health and safety at work.

The direct experiences of our grantees highlight the systemic issues that our Better Work programme has been focused on tackling – insecure/unclear employment status, the trap of gig economy without safety nets, lack of enforcement around poor employment practice, and business models built around endless cost cutting.

What has also become clearer is that the lack of constructive worker dialogue leads to harsher treatment and more job losses.

At the same time, we hear that some employers are trying to do the right thing, but find it difficult to navigate the complex government guidance, or are facing cash flow difficulties in this crisis.

Many low paid workers on insecure contracts – delivery drivers, warehouse staff, grocery workers, social care workers, NHS nursing staff – are now recognised as the most essential workers that we rely on. This has shifted the context of discussion about workers’ rights, moving it towards a debate on the systemic issues that have been exposed. General perception has changed, and disquiet regarding essential workers’ conditions has increased.

So too has awareness of the type of business attitudes that have helped create these situations: the idea that workers are a cost rather than an asset.

As we look for ways to rebuild our economy, a discussion on a new settlement for workers’ rights within a different social contract is moving onto the political agenda. Commitment to a Living Wage and Living Hours must form a basis to this new settlement. After a decade of the Living Wage, there is data to show its business benefits – better staff morale, productivity, and retention.

Future of Work discussions prior to the pandemic have also generated ideas, such as the one suggested by DotEveryone in January 2020 in a report funded by the Trust, proposing a new governance structure for gig economy companies that would give workers a greater say in platforms design.

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for moving from what is often tokenistic worker consultations to models where workers are stakeholders is that businesses which invest in their staff with workers participating in decision-making, even if they may need to furlough them temporarily, are likely to be better equipped to restart and rebuild.

As we emerge from this crisis, let’s shape a better world of work for everyone - a world where workers participate in decision-making, where they are treated with respect and decency, and paid at least the Living Wage.