It’s easy to see why Boris Johnson wants to send people working from home back to the office. Despite the gradual rolling back of lockdown, Britain’s big town and city centres remain eerily quiet places.
The coronavirus crisis scattering city workers to the suburbs has delivered a hammer blow to urban economic activity, laying low the service sector that powers the country’s growth engine. Not a week has gone by without waves of job losses at companies reliant on people leaving their homes and heading into towns and cities.
There are strong reasons of social justice to get people returning to offices and other workplaces. Significant divisions have emerged between people who can and cannot work from home, with sharp differences split across incomes, gender, age, ethnic background, education and geography.
Official figures show that more than half of workers in London are working from home, compared with roughly a third in the Midlands and Yorkshire. Meanwhile, fewer than one in 10 of those in the bottom half of earners say they can work from home. Maintaining such a split in society is highly problematic.
Four months into the pandemic, the prime minister has ordered people back to offices from 1 August. Outlined in a major speech last week, the move is considered by Johnson as the next vital step on Britain’s road to recovery. Up to £30bn of additional tax and spending measures from the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have been announced to kickstart the revival.
But despite the change in tone at the top and spending bonanza, gaping holes remain in the government plan. Appearing in a hurry to restore normality, despite the continuing health risks from Covid-19, the perception is that the Tories are taking these steps for the wrong reasons. As one civil servant put it to me, summing up the problem: “I’m not going back to the office just to save Pret from going bust.”
The contradictions in the prime minister’s speech last week were myriad. Employers should decide if workers return to offices, in consultation with staff, Johnson said. But after more than a decade of workers’ rights being eroded by the Conservatives, and as ministers allowed the gig economy to boom without bringing employment law up to date, sweeping millions of people into precarious work, how might these consultations go?
“It is not for government to decide how employers should run their companies and whether they want their workforce in the office or not,” Johnson said. “That’s very much for companies.” But, for the past four months, it very much has been the government that has made that decision, judging that the health risks from Covid-19 were too high.
Infections are falling, which might justify the change. But Johnson warned the risk of a second wave of infections would come as winter draws near. The state stepping back given these risks sounds to worried workers like a dereliction of duty.
Britain had a problem with a lopsided power relationship at work before the pandemic begun. A new report from the Common Wealth thinktank published on Monday argues that a new settlement for work is needed to be at the heart of a fair recovery agenda to address these issues. Failure to rewrite the rules could lead to unscrupulous employers forcing their staff back without adequately addressing their concerns.
Before his speech last week, the prime minister promised a “new deal” for the country with dollops of infrastructure spending and measures to “build back better” from the pandemic.
But while invoking the New Deal that helped America escape from the nightmare of the 1930s Great Depression, much was missing, in a speech more ruse than Roosevelt. Not only does it fail to match the spending enacted by Roosevelt, New Deal-era steps to boost workers rights were also glaringly absent.
Roosevelt’s administration brought in a raft of new measures to protect workers’ rights as part of the New Deal. The Wagner Act was a deliberate push to get wages rising again, to ensure ordinary Americans benefited from the recovery from the Great Depression. The power of trades unions was increased, and the National Labor Relations Board created in 1935 to enforce workers’ rights. Experts regard the reforms as key for empowering American workers, helping to rebuild the middle class, and laying the foundations for the golden age of economic prosperity that followed the second world war.
Maintaining a free-market Conservative approach, Johnson’s “new deal” rhetoric prioritises deregulation. The mantra in Whitehall is to ask how government can step out of the way and promote individual agency. If the same thinking applies to workers’ rights, the old inequalities that existed before Covid struck will become even more entrenched. But as far as post-Covid political slogans go, “build back the same” doesn’t have much appeal.
As outlined in Common Wealth’s report, coronavirus is exposing, accelerating and entrenching problems in the economy. It is time for a proper new deal that includes boosting workers’ rights.
The report sets out a plan to correct these issues. It recommends a ban on zero-hour contracts, giving trade unions the right of entry to workplaces – including digitally – and restoring sectoral collective bargaining. Other steps would include measures to ensure the digital economy boosts the wages and security of workers rather than undercutting them, and strengthening the welfare safety net to empower the unemployed.
The coronavirus crisis has shown the importance of increasing the power of workers. Trades unions have been at the heart of talks to launch the furlough scheme and recovery plans. The prominence of key workers has come to the fore, while the lack of investment after a decade of austerity – in both people and the wider system of public services – has also been exposed.
It is clear that shop workers, teachers, care workers, and health staff – working in potentially risky conditions – are doing work essential for the wider economy. But their pay and conditions remain substandard after a decade of austerity. Pressure will grow on the government to act.
Should this piece of the puzzle to rebuild Britain from the coronavirus crisis remain missing as the nights draw in, and as infections begin to rise, Johnson’s government could face a second winter of discontent.
If he is serious about delivering a new deal, protections for working people must be at its heart.