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Fair work must be championed if Wales is to ‘build back better’

October 27th 2020

This month has seen the unemployment rate in Wales increase further as the real impact of the pandemic took hold. Both the Welsh and UK Governments have understandably focused on mitigating job losses. But job quality must not be sacrificed for job quantity.

 

The threat to fair work

Recent evidence from the Resolution Foundation has shown that the rising National Living Wage has been successful in driving down low pay (defined as earning below two-thirds of median hourly pay). Right up until the crisis, the number of workers on low pay had fallen for the sixth consecutive year, to the lowest rate since 1978. Yet this progress has been threatened by the pandemic, with low paid workers – including hospitality workers and young people – being disproportionately affected. With it looking increasingly likely that the Low Pay Commission will advise only a minor increase at best in the National Minimum Wage, those workers who avoid redundancy may still be faced with fewer hours and wages being unable to meet living costs.

There is also the issue of maintaining and improving skills within the workforce. Giving evidence to the Economy Committee last month, UK Hospitality stated that one of their longer term fears is the industry in Wales being gutted of skilled workers, as people are forced to take other jobs, potentially low-paying and unstable work, where their skills go to waste and depreciate. Amazon are one company which have announced plans to significantly increase its workforce in the UK, including at the Swansea factory. But there are numerous reports, including a new joint report by the TUC and GMC, that workers here put up with substandard working conditions, with long hours and insufficient break times all contributing to high turnover rates. We cannot allow the need to keep people in jobs to weaken Wales’ path to becoming a fair work nation.

Social Care

As well as threatening jobs by keeping town centres locked down and ceasing trade in most industries, the pandemic has illustrated the unfair working terms and conditions of our social care workforce. Despite these workers performing a crucial role in normal times, and a fundamental role protecting our most vulnerable during a public health crisis, these workers continue to be paid the minimum wage, with unstable hours ruining prospects for a healthy work-life balance. On top of insufficient reward, there are reports revealing that many social care workers have not had timely access to PPE, threatening both themselves and residents of care homes. Conditions in these sectors are not just immoral but are unsustainable if we are to have a stable, healthy workforce with adequate protection for social care workers being prioritised.

The role of fair work in ‘building back better’

It is welcome that the Welsh Government has been vocal in making the case for fair work. At the start of the pandemic, they released a joint statement with the TUC signalling that their response would at its inception be informed by fair work principles. Recently, Economy Minister Ken Skates wrote to businesses that had been recipients of the Economic Resilience Fund, reminding them of the commitment made when receiving funding to protect and progress these principles. As the crisis continues to unfold, it is crucial that Welsh Government keeps up this momentum, including ensuring that these employers take steps to improve trade union access in the workplace. Failure to do so would undermine the ambition for Wales to ‘build back better’. More importantly, it would mean the sacrifices made by our key workers have been forgotten. The clapping may have stopped, but we still have this opportunity to improve their working conditions and see these workers be fairly rewarded.

 

Huw Anslow is Fair Work Project Officer at the Bevan Foundation

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