Once again we are starting a new year with the country plagued by Covid-19.
But heading into 2022, the UK should have been better prepared for the disruption of a new variant.
In March 2020, the TUC and unions urged the Chancellor to adopt our detailed proposals for a leave scheme – an emergency response to the first wave of the pandemic. It was a huge success – protecting millions of jobs, keeping businesses open, making reopening smoother and faster and ensuring families across the UK can pay their bills.
Now, as we take on Omicron, we have the same old argument as to whether government should step in and protect workers’ livelihoods in times of crisis.
It has been clear for months that the UK needs a permanent short-time work scheme, learning from the success of holidays, to protect jobs during times of economic turmoil.
Such programs are common across Europe and help keep businesses afloat in the event of a sudden and temporary collapse in demand. But ministers chose not to listen.
After prematurely cutting holidays in the fall, the government has seen Omicron hammer our arts, hospitality and aviation sectors in the run-up to Christmas.
While the Chancellor’s 11am rescue plan for pubs, restaurants and theaters will help some, serious damage has already been done to payment for packages and livelihoods. We need to end this step-by-step approach to managing our economy.
Businesses and working families shouldn’t experience an emotional roller coaster every time the pandemic strikes. They need financial certainty and stability so that, when better times return, our economy can rebound quickly.
The establishment of a permanent partial unemployment scheme, conditional on skills upgrading and retraining, will ensure that if further restrictions are to be imposed again, support is ready to go. But we can’t stop there. We need to build an economy that can help working families face the future with confidence.
Huge challenges lie ahead. Alongside Covid, climate change is already causing global chaos and threatening jobs in energy-intensive industries such as steel and manufacturing. The longer we delay reaching net zero, the more jobs will be at risk.
And let’s not forget the looming cost-of-living storm. The past 11 years have been the worst period of real wage growth since the Napoleonic Wars. And it has come at a huge cost to the standard of living of the people.
More than half of poor families today are working families. And many of our key workers – who keep hospitals and utilities running – still earn less in real terms than in 2010. It’s a national disgrace. Without action, the pressure on UK household budgets will only worsen in 2022.
This spring, working families face a triple whammy: skyrocketing bills, cuts to universal credit and increases in national insurance contributions. We urgently need a long-term economic plan to raise wages.
And the best way to start is to get more workers covered by collective agreements, sector by sector – so they can negotiate a fair wage increase with employers. Giving unions better access to workplaces is key to improving pay and employment standards across the country.
And it’s not just me saying that. The OECD and governments around the world, from America to New Zealand, have recognized the key role collective bargaining can play in reducing inequalities and keeping people safe at work.
Engaging in industry-wide fair compensation agreements would transform the lives of millions of people by setting minimum standards – for pay, training, health and safety – and prevent good employers from dying. ‘be undermined by the bad.
And fair pay deals would help alleviate staff shortages in pressurized sectors such as logistics, food production and social care, making these industries better places to work.
Whether they can improve living standards and working conditions is the litmus test of the government’s upgrading program.
Along with the campaign for higher wages for working people, we are still waiting for the jobs bill that Boris Johnson promised more than two years ago. Tackling precarious work, banning fires and rehiring, and banning zero hour contracts – all are long overdue.
So is fixing our broken sickness benefit system. It boggles the mind that we are heading into yet another wave of a pandemic with millions of people unable to afford self-isolation.
This year is a crossroads. In the grip of pandemics and climate chaos, we can continue to flip from crisis to crisis, again triggering endemic insecurity and inequalities. Or we can harness the power of active government – in partnership with unions and employers – to create a fairer and more resilient economy.
In this age of anxiety, workers demand safety. This is my wish for 2022.