“Stand by working families – don’t walk away,” TUC’s O’Grady tells Rishi Sunak

Sienna Rodgers

General secretary Frances O’Grady has issued a personal challenge to Rishi Sunak at the opening of the TUC Congress 2020 this morning by telling the Conservative Chancellor to “stand by working families – don’t walk away”.

Addressing the trade union federation’s 152nd Congress in London, O’Grady warned ministers of mass unemployment amid the coronavirus pandemic and said the UK faces a “tsunami of job losses” as the furlough scheme ends.

She said: “Unions pushed for the jobs retention scheme. Millions of livelihoods were saved – both employees and the self-employed. From this Thursday, it will be just 45 days before the JRS ends.

“That’s the notice period that companies have to give if they intend to make mass redundancies. If the government doesn’t act, we face a tsunami of job losses. So my message to the Chancellor is this:

“We worked together once before. We are ready to work with you again – if you are serious about stopping the catastrophe of mass unemployment. Rishi Sunak: stand by working families – don’t walk away.”

The coronavirus job retention scheme is set to end next month, despite the Tory-dominated Treasury select committee, think tanks, opposition parties and industry leaders warning that many businesses will still be struggling.

The TUC has revealed its own blueprint for saving jobs and retraining workers affected by coronavirus, whereby the government would offer subsidies of up to 70% to participating companies’ pay and overhead costs.

Under the plan, if employees were brought back from furlough for less than 50% of their normal hours, the government would fund retraining so that workers could transition into industries less affected by the pandemic.

The ‘job protection and upskilling deal’ put forward by the trade union body would provide more “targeted” support than the furlough scheme by adding conditions to the financial assistance offered by the government.

O’Grady told TUC Congress today: “When the crisis began, the Chancellor said he would do ‘whatever it takes’. He must keep that promise. Some will ask can the country afford to do it? The answer is – we can’t afford not to.”

Amid fears that the national minimum wage will not be increased next year due to the damage done by coronavirus, the general secretary stressed the importance of this rise taking place, telling ministers: “don’t punch down”.

10 Downing Street last week said the government still intended to introduce the wage boost, but added that it had been originally planned “provided that economic conditions allow” – and the UK’s economy is being hard-hit by Covid-19.

O’Grady also touched on the Black Lives Matter movement in her speech, saying: “When Black workers rise, we all rise. We don’t need another review to know what needs to change. The government needs to act now.”

The union leader advised the Tory government to introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, address any pay gaps revealed and ban zero-hour contracts, which disproportionately affect Black workers in the UK.

She concluded: “To all key workers: thank you for your sacrifice and for your service. This country must make a promise to you and to all working people: there must be no return to business as usual.”

The TUC is today launching its campaign for key workers to receive decent pay, as well as fair terms and conditions in their contracts, to give “dignity at work” to those who risked their lives during the coronavirus crisis.

Below is the full text of Frances O’Grady’s speech at TUC Congress 2020.

Thanks to our President for his kindness, humour and patience: especially when he has to remind us, yet again, that we’re on mute. Thanks to the General Council for their wisdom and camaraderie. And thanks to all our brilliant workplace reps and organisers.

Trade union membership grew again this year – that’s three years in a row. More women and men.
Standing together for a fair deal for working people.

Sometimes this movement falls short of its ideals. There are battles that I thought my generation had won; and wouldn’t have to keep fighting. Including on sexual harassment. But let there be no doubt. This is a #MeToo moment for our unions Women demand dignity and justice. And our movement must pass the test.

Because true trade unionism is about common purpose between all working people, here in Britain, and around the world. Treating each other with respect. Looking after each other. Winning better working lives.

And, if there is one lesson we have learned from this terrible pandemic: It’s that there is such a thing as society. We’ve shopped for our neighbours. Kept each other safe. Saved jobs and livelihoods.

It takes a whole community to beat a pandemic. It can’t just be done from Westminster corridors or company boardrooms. We all have to play our part.

Yet some in the Establishment behave as if there’s one rule for them, and another for everybody else. And, too often, ministers struggle to imagine lives that are unlike their own.

Like when the Prime Minister ordered a return to work, without a proper plan for public transport. And precious little thought about working mums and dads, and childcare. Instead, a useless App. A mutant algorithm. And a half-baked test and trace system. Less ‘moonshot’, more moonshine.

This crisis couldn’t make plainer how much we need diversity in decision making. Practical life experience, competence and challenge. And that’s why I argue for trade unions to have a seat at the table.

Unions have always stepped up in national emergencies. And we always will. We first called for a national recovery council in March. To plan for the good green jobs we need with unions and business, on equal terms. Maybe if government had listened then. We’d be in a better place now.

It’s no coincidence that the Scheme that paid the wages of over nine million workers was the one that unions had pushed for: The job retention scheme. Not perfect, but millions of livelihoods were saved – employees and the self-employed.

From Thursday this week, it will be just 45 days before the job retention scheme ends. That’s the 45 day notice period that companies have to give, If they intend to make mass redundancies. And if government doesn’t act, we face a tsunami of job losses.

This isn’t about obsolete jobs or zombie firms. These jobs are on the line for one reason only. The global pandemic. And they do have a future.

Once this pandemic is under control: people will still want to fly on holiday; and go to gigs and shows; and, if we are to earn our way in the world, Britain will still need steel and manufacturing.

The pandemic isn’t scheduled to end in October. So neither should state support for jobs. So much better to keep people working. Paying their taxes. Spending their wages. Helping to rebuild the economy.

Perhaps this government needs reminding about what mass unemployment does to a country. The despair of a young generation’s dreams crushed. Or joining the dole queue in your ‘fifties, afraid that you’ll never work again. And what happens to local pride and identity, when, overnight, a town’s biggest employer goes bust.

I lived through the mass unemployment of the ‘80s. (I was a fan of the Coventry band, the Specials) So, yes, let’s talk about ghost towns. And let me tell you. Flexible working won’t destroy our town centres. But you can bet your life that widespread poverty will.

Some say the numbers out of work could rise to two and a half, three or even four million. The price of unemployment is always too high. And it’s always paid by ordinary working families.

That’s why this movement will always stand for the right of everyone to a decent job. Full employment. The chance to work and get on in life; for everyone.

Here’s what the TUC proposes: In return for state support, firms must come up with credible plans to rebuild hours and productivity.

A new job protection and skills deal. A three-way bargain: The employer brings people back, at least on short hours. During downtime, workers retrain and up-skill. And the state subsidises wages, on condition that employers pay at least 80% of the normal rate.

But there’ll be no blank cheque for business. No handouts for boardroom bonanzas. Shareholders must tighten their belts. And to qualify, every company must pay their fair share of taxes – here, in the UK.

When the crisis began, the Chancellor said he would do ‘whatever it takes’. He must keep that promise. Some will ask can the country afford to do it? The answer is – we can’t afford not to.

The Chancellor must learn the lessons of the job retention scheme. And keep on supporting jobs. So my message to the Chancellor is this: We worked together once before. We are ready to work with you again. If you are serious about stopping the catastrophe of mass unemployment, Rishi Sunak: stand by working families – don’t walk away.

Whatever happens, we won’t give up. Unions will fight for every job. Even more so with the clock ticking down on Brexit. The government must buckle down. Stop the bluster. We need a good deal.

Putting more jobs at risk, as unemployment rises, is plain irresponsible. And we know who gets targeted first for lay-offs. Young people on insecure contracts; disabled people and those shielding; pregnant workers; and Black workers.

Much more likely to be at risk, in the pandemic, working on the frontline. But, too often, when it came to proper PPE, stuck at the back of the queue.

This summer has seen a reckoning. Long overdue. For the injustice that Black people face. In the UK, as in the US; And around the world.

Trade unions must play our part. With open minds and open hearts. This movement is drawn from the society we live in. Our history – like this country’s – is scarred with racism. It’s right to acknowledge it. But we also have a proud history of fighting racism. And we know that when Black workers rise, we all rise.

We don’t need another review to know what needs to change. The government must act now. They could start by making employers publish their race pay gaps – and then fix them. And ban zero hours contracts, that keep too many Black workers poor.

Coronavirus is no leveller. On the contrary. It has exposed huge inequality in modern Britain.

The new working class. Heading out to hard work, for low wages. If you get ill, statutory sick pay is just £96 a week. Matt Hancock even admitted – he couldn’t live on that. So how can he expect workers to stay home and self-isolate if it means they can’t afford to feed their family.

And too many workplaces still aren’t safe. When we asked low-paid workers what the boss has done to reduce risk: one in four said – nothing. Zero. That tells us a lot about the pursuit of profit over safety.

So, thank you Prime Minister, but we don’t need a pep talk about returning to work. From the start, whether on the shop floor or from the kitchen table, millions have worked hard through this crisis. Instead, we need this government to get tough on workplace safety. And deliver decent sick pay.

Hard work should pay for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of job you do. Yet, too many of those who kept this country going through the crisis don’t get the respect they deserve. They do valuable work. Skilled work. But they are short changed.

So I have a message for this government. And the red wall Tories. About the minimum wage. That’s the wage of two million key workers. It must rise as planned. Don’t punch down on the working poor

Key workers have shown courage. Dedication. That’s real civic duty. Now it’s time for government and employers to repay that debt: Fix their contracts. Raise their pay. Give people dignity at work.

Congress, I will end with this: On behalf of our trade union movement, I say to all key workers: Staff in shops, energy, utilities, Fire fighters and prison staff, Bus drivers and railway workers, Delivery drivers and posties, Refuse collectors and civil servants, Teachers and support staff, Our wonderful members in the NHS and social care: Thank you for your sacrifice and for your service.

This country must make a promise, to you and to all working people: There must be no return to business as usual. We demand a new deal for working people. And we will not rest until we win. Thank you Congress.

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