Coronavirus exposes UK low-wage essential workers to exploitation
People working in UK’s vulnerable sectors falling through cracks of government rescue packages
London, United Kingdom – Landmark structures in London are virtually lifeless now that coronavirus-induced stay-at-home orders keep all but the most essential workers from making their way to office buildings. To do so means risking exposure to a virus that has already infected more than 171,000 people and killed roughly 27,000 in the United Kingdom. Streets in the British capital’s financial heart now only see the occasional masked pedestrian and ubiquitous cycle couriers.
But Laura, who does not want to reveal her real name for fear of reprisal, still gets on a bus every morning before dawn to go to work in London. The Venezuelan fled political and economic unrest in South America, where she was a teacher. In “lockdown” UK, she scrubs offices at a bank that has kept some of its key operations running.
Since the crisis began, her already-insecure employment has become even more precarious. While the government has set up a scheme to cover 80 percent of workers’ wages throughout the crisis, abusive employment practices in the sector mean that was never an option for her.
Laura is one of many workers who, charities and unions worry, are falling through the cracks of the UK’s government programmes, designed to protect livelihoods during the pandemic. Those groups also fear chronic under-resourcing of labour oversight coupled with coronavirus-induced restrictions on movement will leave a free hand to abusive employers.
A spokesperson for the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), a government agency tasked with investigating labour abuse and regulating key sectors, told Al Jazeera the GLAA recognises some low-wage workers are at risk of exploitation, and that those risks could “increase in some areas during the pandemic.”
Keeping others safe
For two hours before employees arrive, Laura disinfects their work stations, then spends the rest of the day wiping down door handles, lift buttons, and any other sources of possible contagion.
She works 11.5 hours a day, including breaks. The outsourcing company that hired her considers most of her shift – the time she spends protecting others from the virus – “cover hours”. Her contract does not guarantee that time.
Before the lockdown, Laura was on a part-time contract with four hours guaranteed every day, but would often be asked to work additional “cover” hours. Those extra hours meant she had a reliable income upon which she could budget for food, housing, transportation, and other essentials. That all changed after one of the buildings she cleaned shut down.
“When this coronavirus thing started, they offered me a ‘cover’ of seven hours,” said Laura. “They told me that in order to work those hours, I had to give up on the government’s furlough scheme, so I did. I will be paid at the normal rate, but I just started, and I’m yet to receive the money,” she added, implying this was not as obvious an outcome as one would assume.
Unable to live on 80 percent of her declared income, she continued working on new terms: Fewer guaranteed hours with routine unpaid overtime, usual conditions, and hourly pay that is just above the national minimum wage.
As the country ground to a halt, the UK government set out a series of unprecedented financial measures to save businesses from bankruptcy and avoid mass unemployment. But some people are falling through the cracks.
The British Cleaning Council estimated in 2017, the sector employed about 700,000 people.
“In the cleaning industry, companies not giving [workers] proper employment contracts is the norm,” Henry Lopez, the president of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), told Al Jazeera. “They would call them to do ‘extra work’ when in fact they work full-time for the company,” he explained,
“For workers who didn’t have [a contract] at the time this [coronavirus] happened, employers are trying to get away with sacking workers,” he said, adding that the union is also asking companies to reinstate workers laid off before the government’s lockdown was announced.
Lopez says his union is seeing cases where workers are not being given protective equipment on the job. Supermarkets, he claims, are some of the problematic employers. He says they often “don’t take any responsibility” and “let the outsourcing company deal with these workers.”
Falling through the cracks
The UK government has pumped seven billion pounds ($8.8bn) into the country’s welfare system, raising the standard unemployment allowance to 409 pounds ($514) a month. Statutory sick pay and support for workers with health conditions who need to self-isolate have also been extended.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts British unemployment will to rise 10 percent as the country’s economy takes a blow worse than the 2008 financial crisis.
More than 140,000 companies applied to the government’s “coronavirus job retention scheme” on the first day it was launched. Under the scheme, the government covers 80 percent of employees’ wages – up to a maximum of 2,500 pounds ($3,130) a month – while companies are forced to remain on a coronavirus-induced lockdown. A similar scheme was introduced for the UK’s estimated five million self-employed workers based on their average earnings.
Supporting the livelihoods of 8.3 million people, the OBR estimates it will end up costing 42 billion pounds ($52bn) over three months.
In a briefing published last month, the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) found the schemes do not cover some categories of workers. Recent job switchers and seasonal workers are unable to get furloughed. Additionally, one in 20 self-employed workers who were not registered as such in the previous tax year is not eligible for help.
Migrant workers, who are often employed in the informal economy and, in some cases, unable to access welfare, are particularly at risk.
“The risk of destitution is putting people in a very vulnerable position,” Lucila Grenada, chief executive at FLEX, told Al Jazeera.
“It is increasing their vulnerability to labour exploitation because the situation will make them desperate to get a job, and more willing to accept dangerous working conditions,” she added.
Ana* (not her real name), an Ecuadorian woman in her 40s, had been working for two cleaning companies in London since arriving in the country at the end of last year.
As soon as coronavirus hit the UK, she lost one of her jobs.
“I just received a letter that said they no longer needed my services because the company was shutting down. I was only a replacement,” Ana said.
Not without difficulties, Ana – a Spanish citizen who arrived in the country earlier this year – managed to get furloughed for her second job. Like many migrant women with a history of informal work, she is not sure whether she can access government benefits. But even that would leave her worried about being able to support her family.
“I came here because there wasn’t a lot of work in Spain, and my son is studying at university there, costs are high,” said Ana. “We are living hand to mouth, and we are worried. I will go out and look for work.” She knows about the risk of infection, “but what choice do I have? To stay this way, it just scares me”.
Dolores Modern at the Latin American Women’s Rights Service said her organisation has been swamped with calls from women who do not know whether they are entitled to government help.
“Many are being dismissed rather than put on furlough simply because the scheme is not mandatory,” Modern told Al Jazeera. “They have been left out of all the government’s plans and unprotected.”
Meanwhile, long hours and self-isolation are keeping Laura away from her family as she avoids visits that could put her elderly mother’s health at risk. “I have my sister and my mother here in London,” said Laura, who hopes to find the time to improve her English so that one day she can go back to teaching French and Spanish. “I haven’t seen them in more than five weeks.”