On International Workers’ Memorial Day, let’s demand better

Today marks International Workers’ Memorial Day, when the labour movement comes together to remember those who have lost their lives at work. Every year more people are killed at work than in wars. This year, however, the day will take on a particular poignancy as we pause to remember those key workers who have lost their lives while trying to keep us safe from Covid-19.

It is not just our brave doctors and nurses, but the hospital porters and cleaners too. It is our public transport workers, our posties and our care workers who are being asked to do their jobs without the proper protective equipment. It is the teachers, retail workers and delivery drivers who are keeping the country running. It is the amazing voluntary and community groups who have stepped up to fill the gaps where a decade of austerity has slashed at our safety nets.

This crisis must serve as a turning point in this country’s history. The past few weeks has shown that the value of many people’s work is simply not reflected in their pay packets. Many of these essential staff are not even paid the real living wage, and many are stuck on zero-hour contracts.

The sad reality is that too many of these everyday heroes are in fact minimum wage heroes. Research published last week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that a third of key workers earn less than £10 an hour, while the earnings gap between key and non-key workers has nearly doubled since 2010.

Without our “minimum-wage heroes”, the country would not have stood a chance against the pandemic. To misquote a famous wartime leader, never was so much owed to so many, by so many. Make no mistake – our country is at war with this virus, but we will come out the other side.

When we do emerge, there will be a massive job of work on all of our hands to rebuild the country – not just its economy but our society too. One thing is certain: we cannot return to business as usual. Personally, I would not want to anyway. Why would we want to return to a society that treats valuable workers so poorly?

We have a real, exciting opportunity to fundamentally change the way our country works. It is an opportunity that we must grasp with both hands. After this crisis, these minimum wage heroes should become living wage heroes, with proper terms and conditions to match. It should not take the death of key workers to make us demand better, but the sacrifices made during this crisis should not be in vain. Let’s build back better.

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