Unite the Union will not allow working people to pay for this crisis

When I described the Chancellor’s package of measures to support millions of UK workers to fend of economic collapse as historic, bold and very much necessary, I was under no illusion about the Tories’ inbuilt resistance to using the power of the state to look after people.

As much as Unite’s support for Rishi Sunak’s job retention scheme still stands – and it really is a radical departure for this country – we recognise the need to make him keep his promise to do “whatever it takes” and to continue to stand behind workers and businesses.

Very much still open for business, Unite worked fast and hard, when the penny finally dropped for the government that it needed to work with the unions, to get the Treasury to turn off the road to business loans and onto the JRS route, as well as for the measures for the self-employed announced on Thursday. We worked with the TUC on an alternative mechanism that would pay wages, not stack up company debt.

Already we are seeing problems with the implementation of the JRS, largely because businesses fear it will be too slow to pay out. We are pressing the Chancellor to do more to compel employers to access the scheme instead of sending workers home to live off poverty sick pay. The scheme must be made to deliver on its promise, and Unite is committed to pulling every lever available to make sure it does.

Ministers must urgently set out to business why using the scheme is the most effective and responsible way of playing their part to avert collective economic disaster. HMRC, too, must explain the system better to employers who are hesitant.

Not that there’s anything hesitant about the rogues out there. The Tim Martins and Richard Bransons, prepared to dump thousands of workers rather than put a hand in their own deep pockets to bridge the wage gap.

Or about the other bad bosses whose workers are contacting Unite because they are terrified they will lose their jobs. The likes of automotive supply firm Faurecia Interiors, for example, refusing to tell employees if or when they will be registering with the JRS, and Wren Kitchens, which fired hundreds of staff, making them ineligible for the 80% of their wages under the furlough scheme.

Let there be no doubt that Unite will use the full force of the law, including unfair dismissal actions, to stop companies using the pandemic to shed workers. As we will against those who put workers in harm’s way. They will all be called to account.

Look no further than the walk-outs by Moy Park and ABP workers in Northern Ireland, taking control and forcing their managers to act on demands that they implement the government’s rules on social distancing and other workplace safety measures.

We’ve also demanded that Diageo in Scotland halt its operations in light of the workforce’s serious concerns about health and safety. Safety, jobs and wages are our priorities and up and down the country our reps and stewards are working around the clock to stop any backsliding on the standards and conditions we have won for workers.

We will not allow working people to pay for this crisis. Neither will we stop fighting for the millions of bogusly self-employed people who will continue to teeter on the edge of financial collapse unless the government re-classifies them as employees so that they can be covered by the JRS.

Unite has long called for an end to this abusive employment status, warning that it is not sustainable to have millions of workers without status, rights or a secure income. A warning borne out by the site of crowded tube trains and packed construction site canteens, as non-essential workers continued to head to work because of the appalling choice between protecting their health or averting hardship forced on them by their precarious situation.

Giving those forced by their ‘employers’ to declare themselves self-employed proper employee status could be done at the stroke of a pen if the government only had the will to do so. But we know that what we have seen so far from the chancellor is not his natural economic homeland and ensuring he and the prime minister continue to do the right thing for all working people requires no let up from us.

When this crisis is finally over, we hope the government will have learned the lessons. There can be no return to the ruinous austerity economics of the past decade, which has undoubtedly hampered efforts to fend off the disease and protect people. Civil society will have to question why we allowed millions of workers to live without basic rights, and why our NHS and public services have become threadbare. The conclusion must be: never again.

More from LabourList