Cut hours, not people: no work, furlough, short hours and mental health during COVID-19 pandemic in the UK.

Written by Dr Ioulia Bessa, Centre for Employment Relations Innovation & Change.

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Paid work is not only a source for income, it is also essential for good mental health. Apart from its financial benefits employment contributes positively on wellbeing and consistent with previous research even one day of paid work a week can make the difference and can boost mental health and life satisfaction. How has Covid-19 crisis impacted employment and consequently mental health in the UK?  Our recent research project shows that during the pandemic workers who are furloughed or worked reduced hours have better mental health than people who lost their jobs.

The Covid-19 pandemic risked plunging millions of workers into unemployment. To mitigate the damage of both unemployment and low mental health, the government introduced Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme allowing for the furloughing of workers.

Despite the implementation of the CJRS, claimant count reached approximately 3 million while other individuals commenced working shorter hours. In a working paper with Dr Brendan Burchell and Dr Senhu Wang from Cambridge University, Dr Daiga Kamerāde from University of Salford and Professor Jill Rubery from University of Manchester, we illustrate that employers should cut hours not employees and utilise shorter working weeks to limit both unemployment and a rise in mental illness. Our analysis draws on the first and second waves (April and May 2020) of the Covid-19 Understanding Society dataset.

Covid-19 Understanding Society

Our research is based on very timely data. In April 2020 Understanding Society collected data on issues around health, caring responsibilities, employment and job seeking, training, financial situations, the division of domestic labor, life satisfaction, mental health and wellbeing, home schooling and travel to work – areas then extended in the following waves (May and June). In total 17,452 individuals participated in the first wave (April 2020) of the dataset and 14,811 in the second (May 2020).  The dataset offers an early opportunity to examine how far changes in employment status, work hours and involvement furlough job retention scheme are related to the likelihood of having mental health problems.

Who are those individuals whose mental health has been affected the most by the Covid-19 crisis?

Drawing on the April and May 2020 Understanding Society waves, findings reveal that those who were already unemployed, or have become unemployed during the Covid-19 crisis have been affected most.  Results show that leaving paid work is significantly related to poorer mental health. In contrast, having some paid work and/or some continued connection to a job, notably those who remained full- or part-time employed or were furloughed were found to have better mental health.

Results are slightly more pronounced when drawing on the May 2020 wave, as we find that about 27 per cent of those who stayed in full-time employment were in the “at risk” category for mental health.  This is a stark finding. Although there are no significant differences between those in full and part time jobs, those who have reduced from full-time to part-time hours, or those who have been furloughed, the rate increased by 54 per cent the probability of those being at the risk category for those who lost their jobs. There was very little difference for those who reduced hours from full-time to part-time, or stayed part-time, or who were furloughed. Individuals who have continued to work at least part time during the coronavirus lockdown have far fewer mental health problems than those who have lost their jobs, according to the most comprehensive study of workers across Britain during the pandemic.

Gender differences also prevailed. Although men’s mental health and wellbeing scores worsened between Wave 9 (2017-2019) and Covid-19 waves, for women the deterioration in mental health was twice that of men, shedding light on the pressures women have been experiencing to accommodate work, life and potentially caring responsibilities during the pandemic, or due to higher unemployment levels that have hit women more severely

Conclusions: Groups “at risk”, a gendered crisis and mental health levels  

The evidence is entirely consistent with our expectations based on earlier research: reducing hours does not have an appreciable effect on wellbeing, but redundancies has a very large effect — almost exactly doubling the probability of being in the highest risk group. It is also important to note that an overall deterioration in mental health compared to pre-pandemic levels had been much greater for women than for men.

The survey mirrors past reports on the stress caused by unemployment. It also highlights options for international policymakers seeking to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19, including rising treatment costs for the NHS and still more fragile mental health services in lower-income countries.

Both short working hours and furlough job retention schemes can thus be seen to be effective protective factors against worsening mental health. However, the key issue is how to move beyond the furlough scheme. A v-shaped bounce back is not on the horizon and many sectors will, at best, move into partial activity. So, the need to avoid a huge increase in unemployment is just as vital with all the risk to mental health that that would entail. These findings point to the need to move towards sharing work more equitably, including introducing a shorter working week for all (except in those sectors under extreme pressure) in order to minimize the risk to mental health and well-being if those on furlough are now pushed into unemployment.

The working paper appeared in the Financial Times and in the Telegraph.

All in this together? How a decade of austerity cleared the way for Covid-19 in deprived urban areas

Tom Gillespie, Hallsworth Research Fellow, Global Development Institute and Kate Hardy, Associate Professor, University of Leeds

iStock-180887338-1080x675Addressing world leaders on Monday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that ‘it is humanity against the virus – we are in this together’. Sound familiar? ‘All in this together’ was the oft-repeated mantra used to justify cuts to public spending and welfare services during the Cameron-Osbourne austerity years.

Yet, much like austerity, we are clearly not all in this pandemic together. In England and Wales, people are dying from Covid-19 at twice the rate in deprived areas than in affluent areas. The UK government’s strategy during the critical period of early March was to allow coronavirus to spread through the population with a view to achieving ‘herd immunity’, an approach described by Johnson as taking the virus ‘on the chin’. Clearly, some people in some places have had to ‘take it on the chin’ a lot harder than others.

But why are Covid-19’s effects so geographically uneven? It’s austerity, stupid. Cuts since 2010 have had a disproportionately large impact on deprived urban areas. Quite simply, the areas with the highest death rate are also those that have been ravaged by a decade of austerity policies, creating poverty and vulnerability that is now combining with and amplifying the effects of the virus. As a result, having already borne the brunt of a decade of austerity, it is the poorest in society who are now disproportionately paying the price of the government’s disastrous Covid-19 strategy.

Take the London Borough of Newham: the worst affected by Covid-19 of all local authorities in England and Wales. Why might this be? To start with, Newham has experienced deeper than average cuts in funding from central government and has cut spending on public services by a third. In the area of housing, austerity has had particularly devastating consequences. Budget cuts combined with privatisation policies have led to a shrinking of the boroughs social housing stock and a growing number of people living in insecure, unregulated private rental housing (in 2016, the Conservative government voted against rules to ensure that rental accommodation is ‘fit for human habitation’, citing ‘unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords’).

This housing insecurity has combined with punitive policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ and cuts to housing benefit to force low-income households into rent arrears, contributing to growing evictions and homelessness. In addition, Newham Council sought to capitalise on the 2012 Olympic games to gentrify the borough by redeveloping council estates, leading to the displacement of social housing tenants. As a result of this poisonous cocktail of local and national policies, Newham now has the highest rate of both evictions and households living in temporary accommodation in London.

Behind these depersonalised processes, first hand accounts of life in deprived areas can help us put the pieces together. Our research with people experiencing homelessness in Newham has shown that the living conditions in temporary accommodation, often in the private rented sector, exacerbates existing, and created new, health problems. Toni, a 22 year old, was living in temporary accommodation, sharing a single bedroom with her sister and 4 month-old baby. The poor quality accommodation was creating respiratory problems for her and her child: “The house [is] damp, I’m allergic to damp, it can affect my breathing, it’s not good for a newborn to be around damp”.

Rachel has been living in temporary accommodation for over two years with her young child, who had developed asthma during this time. She said, “I’ve got letters from doctors in Newham Hospital saying this house is not good for the family. We’ve both got bad asthma. It’s damp, the colour is changing – if you leave it for five days, it becomes green… Every winter my little one has to go to the hospital three or five times a month to stabilise her asthma’.

Angela, who had worked as a care worker for over 20 years had to stop work due to her health problem. Her asthma had developed into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and the first stages of emphysema while she was living in temporary accommodation run by Newham Council: ‘when that mould came up, my breathing just went right down here. Then I put a complaint in about it and said I was going round the environmental health, next thing I know there’s someone up hoovering it all. And that’s what they’ve done ever since. Every day, someone comes up to hoover that. They’ve never treated it or nothing. And it’s black and white mould’.

It is clear from these accounts that living in poor quality temporary accommodation has a detrimental impact on the health of homeless people in Newham. The health problems described by Toni, Rachel and Angela constitute the frequently mentioned ‘underlying conditions’ which make people more vulnerable to dying from Covid-19, such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis. This reveals that austerity is at least in part responsible for creating the social conditions in which these health problems multiply. This illustrates how ‘underlying health conditions’ (often implicitly used to diminish the importance of coronavirus deaths) are actively produced by policies that offload the cost of public spending cuts onto specific bodies.

A slow response to the coronavirus pandemic is part of the explanation for why the UK has one of the highest death tolls from COVID19 in the world. But 40 years of public housing privatisation, a decade of austerity, a culture of landlordism and a lack of protections for renters also have a lot to answer for. Just as overcrowding and a lack of access to sanitation and water in informal settlements are conditions that will enable Covid-19 to spread rapidly in the global South, housing poverty, exacerbated by 10 years of punitive austerity policies, is also shaping the uneven impacts of coronavirus in the UK.

Health funding should of course be diverted to deprived areas, but preventative social policy will also be necessary to address the underlying inequalities that make some people more vulnerable to dying of Covid-19 than others. Reversing austerity, investing in social housing and regulating the private rental sector will all be essential to avoid unnecessary deaths in the future. In the short-term, rents should be suspended to prevent a new wave of evictions and homelessness due to the economic crisis. In the longer term, a political movement that challenges the commodification of housing and prioritises public health over private property will be essential to stop the impacts of this -and future- pandemics falling most heavily on the shoulders of the most vulnerable.

Please feel free to use this post under the following Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Full information is available here.

New insights into platform work: Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest

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Written by Dr Ioulia Bessa & Dr Charles Umney,
Centre for Employment Relations Innovation & Change

A new tool for understanding global platform work: Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest

The nature of work in the platform economy is a vital question which has attracted the interest of many researchers, particularly in a pandemic context where remote working and delivery services have become increasingly vital. Platform work is often controversial and contested, associated with exploitative or casualised working conditions, and as such there have also been numerous studies of platform labour protest. However, to date, these tend to be single or small-n comparative case studies.

While such research is informative, and points to various instances where platform workers have successfully mobilised and built solidarity, they cannot tell us about wider global trends in platform labour protest. There is therefore a pressing need for macro-level analyses of platform worker protest on a global scale.

A team of researchers Dr Ioulia Bessa, Dr Simon Joyce, Denis Neumann, Dr Vera Trappmann, Dr Charles Umney and Professor Mark Stuart from Digit- The Digital Futures at Work Research Centre and  Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) has created a database- The Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest (Leeds Index) – which catalogues reported instances of protest by platform workers across the world. Our aim is to develop a comprehensive reference point and an online interactive map to record and analyse instances of labour protest in the platform economy on a global scale. The Leeds Index intends to reveal regional patterns of protest and situate lessons of these disputes in a wider global perspective.

Data collection

We use data from the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) which accesses worldwide news reports in 65 languages with real-time translation. The database records the outcomes of disputes, eventually enabling us to examine which strategies are more likely to lead to success for platform workers in contesting their working conditions. For each instance of reported platform labour unrest (i.e. each “protest event”), we identify the date and location, the cause of the dispute (be it pay, employment status, working conditions, or other issue), and the kind of dispute (for instance strikes, demonstrations, and legal actions). We also categorise the type of actor leading the dispute (differentiating between a mainstream trade union, independent trade unions, self-organized groups of workers, and coalitions).

Initial findings and outputs

The Leeds Index has attracted attention from different sources, and is particularly relevant to trade unions who are concerned about platform working conditions and representing platform workers.

In February 2020 we released a policy briefing for the European Trade Union Institute, which was the first stage in reporting lessons from the database. An initial set of 300 incidents of platform worker protest was analysed. These protest events were drawn from around the world from the time spanning January 2015-January 2020. The highest number of incidents emerged in three industries: food delivery, courier work and transportation. Findings revealed that the main cause globally for labour protest was pay, with considerable geographical variation when it comes to other causes for dispute. Mainstream unions play a vital role in defending platform workers’ interests and rely more frequently on legal challenges, especially in Western Europe, while in the global South, protests are much more likely to be led by grassroots unions and make fewer appeals to institutional or legal processes.

As the dataset extends we are working in collaboration with different institutions, which are supporting our effort to collect and analyse more data. This gives us the opportunity to work with specific sectors or regions, examine particular characteristics or isolate specific cases.

For instance, we are currently working on a report for Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) to be published in autumn, which focuses specifically on companies in the cooked meal delivery sector. The report includes data from 18 cooked meal delivery companies covering their operations in 95 countries around the world. 527 protest incidents have been identified for the period between January 1st 2017 and May 20th 2020. The company with most incidents was Deliveroo, which accounted for more than a quarter of all protest events (28.5 per cent) and most events were centred in Europe. The most frequent type of action was strikes and log offs, (40.4%), followed by demonstrations (34.2%) and two-thirds of disputes (63.4%) related to pay. It was interesting to see that groups of workers were involved in the vast majority of events (85.1 %). This time, the report will also look into different coalitions between actors, illustrating that the most frequent type of coalition is mainly between groups of workers and established unions, followed by coalitions between groups of workers and independent unions.

Alongside these funded projects our overarching target is to keep extending the database. Cases increase and current inputs have now exceeded 1000 incidents. Our next project includes work funded by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for a forthcoming edited publication on platform work. Our project will be the basis for one chapter, providing readers an overview of labour protest in the platform economy on a global scale based on twenty eight companies from different sectors with a particular focus on understanding developments in the global South.

Our future steps involve automating the data mining process. One of the most important challenges that we encounter is the time consuming process that the data collection entails. Automation of the data collection will not only speed up the process of data collection, but will also allow a consistent and holistic collection of incidents.

Eventually, an interactive map will be developed which will render the findings available to all in an accessible and eye-catching way and is intended to serve as a shared resource for activists, unions, researchers, and policy-makers. The interactive map will be searchable and enable us to visualise the spread of platform labour protest across time and space. As the Index develops, it will become a unique resource for all those seeking to understand global patterns in the industrial relations of the platform economy.

In time, we hope that the Leeds Index becomes a comprehensive and valuable resource for researchers seeking to better understand patterns in platform labour unrest; as well as for activists and organisations trying to improve the conditions of platform work.

Do unions make us unhappy? Probably not.

By Professor Andy Charlwood,
Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change,

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It is a well-established research finding that union members in a number of countries, including Britain, the USA and France, tend to be more dissatisfied with their jobs than non-members. The American economists who originally observed this phenomenon thought that it was because unions induce their members to complain about aspects of the employment relationship and this union-induced complaining reduces job satisfaction.

If this is true it suggests a problem because employers collectively spend hundreds of millions of pounds a year on surveys and initiatives to try to manage the satisfaction of their workers. They do this because job satisfaction tends to be associated with more engaged and productive workers. If unions cause job dissatisfaction perhaps they undermine these considerable investments?

The theory that unions cause job dissatisfaction has been challenged by two alternative explanations. First, that perhaps working conditions tend to be worse in the union sector and it is this difference in working conditions that explains lower job satisfaction. Second, it has also been suggested that perhaps workers who are temperamentally more inclined towards job dissatisfaction because of their values and priorities are also more likely to join unions.

I first became interested in this question twenty years ago when working for the TUC. I presented the finding that union members have lower job satisfaction to a group of union reps. Some thought this was a bad thing because unions should make work better for their members. Others were pleased because they thought that dissatisfied members were more willing to take action against employers to try to improve working conditions. What wasn’t clear to any of us then was whether or not unions were actually causing job dissatisfaction.

Since then, a number of articles have been published that show that union members are more dissatisfied even after we account for the fact that they might be temperamentally inclined towards job dissatisfaction, but it has proved difficult to convincingly address the issue of whether unions cause dissatisfaction or not.

To study the question of causality, we need to be able to observe an event that we might expect to cause a change in job satisfaction, we can then study whether this event makes union members more dissatisfied than their non-union counterparts. If it does, we can reasonably infer that it is unions that cause the additional dissatisfaction.

My paper, written with CERIC colleagues Danat Valizade and Ioulia Bessa and recently published by the British Journal of Industrial Relations is the first study of the relationship between unions and job dissatisfaction to examine the causal nature of the relationship in this way. We looked at what happened to the job satisfaction of union members and their non-union counterparts in the wake of changes to public sector pensions in the UK, which resulted in public sector workers have to pay more for smaller pensions. We found that this change and the associated industrial dispute did appear to reduce job satisfaction of those affected but there was no difference in the size of the change in job satisfaction between union members and non-members. Therefore there was no evidence that union opposition to the changes made union members more dissatisfied with their jobs than their non-union co-workers.

In the light of this finding we conclude that unions probably don’t cause job dissatisfaction among their members. We think it more likely that union members tend to be more dissatisfied because they experience more changes at work that cause job dissatisfaction.

For me, conducting this study increased my job satisfaction because I have been thinking about whether unions cause job dissatisfaction or not for over twenty years. It feels good to have an answer. Some trade unionists will welcome the findings because they are uncomfortable with the idea that union membership might make their members unhappy at work. As one Irish trade union official Tweeted in response when I shared the article on Twitter “Are we the baddies? Spoiler: No”. However I suspect some union activists may be disappointed, because for them a successful union campaign gets members dissatisfied so that they are fired up to take industrial action. If unions aren’t making their members dissatisfied perhaps they will not be able to accumulate the industrial muscle to bring about change. This divergence of opinion speaks to a wider point. Just because unions did not cause job dissatisfaction in the UK pensions dispute of 2011 does not mean that they never cause job dissatisfaction. More research drawing on our approach is needed to investigate the effects of unions on job satisfaction in other contexts.

Protecting the Industrial Commons: Redundancies at Roll’s Royce and the wider impact on UK industry

By Dr Ian Greenwood,
Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change

Ian Greenwood 300x270The announcement by Rolls Royce that in response to the impact of the COVID crisis, worldwide, 9000 jobs are to be cut -most at its aerospace centre in Derby- will reverberate beyond the confines of the aerospace industry.

That the company has been in financial difficulties for a while is no secret. In December 2019 the company announced that it was to reduce its intake of apprentices and graduate trainees by almost a third. This continued a five-year trend and takes place within an ongoing programme of contracting its management head count by 5000. The company has also disclosed that it will experience a £2.4bn cash fall between 2017 and 2023. The crisis in profitability that has beset the company has been exacerbated by serious problems involved in resolving quality issues with its Boeing bound Trent 1000 engines. The aircraft industry is suggesting that 2019 levels of output will take five years to attain.

Further job losses are, therefore, not unlikely and the company has declared there will be a retrenchment in its R&D expenditure. The history of Rolls Royce is one peppered with crises and restructuring (involving nationalisation) and although its share price has dropped 2/3 since mid-February of this year, the demise of the company is not imminent.

The wider impact on the UK’s Industrial Commons

The survival of Rolls Royce is vital to the industrial sectors in which it operates, as well as to the broader UK economy. Clearly one company does not make an economy. Nevertheless, the nature of the jobs that will be lost at Rolls Royce, the contraction of trainees and diminution of R&D effort have significance beyond their headline metrics. Engineering UK, the sector employers organisation, estimates that leading up to 2024, there will be a shortfall in satisfying demand of between 37,000 and 59,000 core engineering roles requiring level 3+ skills. Reducing the demand for engineering graduates and trainees through the contraction of engineering firms might be one solution to the problem of excess demand across the wider occupational labour market. This though, is surely a recipe for a general downward spiral in skills, R&D and innovation and culture for a low skill equilibrium.

Taken together, the R&D, engineering, manufacturing capabilities and supplier infrastructure of an economy has been referred to by Pisano and Shih, as a nation’s ‘Industrial Commons’. Crucially, the health of the Commons depends on a strong and vibrant manufacturing sector, particularly the component of this sector that is associated with high skill, high value output. That is, firms such as Rolls Royce. Pisano and Shih (2012) use the example of the declining international competitiveness of the USA to argue that if this Commons is allowed to wither on the vine, the ability of an economy to innovate and create high tech, high value added products will decline, ultimately depressing wage growth and undermining the health of the wider economy. Furthermore, the ability of innovation to ‘spawn new industries’, will be undermined.

Industrial Commons are often connected to sources of high-level knowledge such as universities, which ensures a vital, symbiotic generation of basic, applied and commercial research.  Commons are also often geographically defined. For example, a feature of the aerospace industry in the UK is that 90% of aerospace jobs are outside the South East, providing a valuable dynamic for a balanced economy. The economic and social multipliers of the aerospace industry are significant. The industry has an annual turnover of £31B. It supports 12800 direct and 14000 indirect jobs with average earnings of £43000, 45% higher than the UK average. Through its supply chain programmes, 330 companies have been helped to ‘boost their competitiveness to world-class levels’.

The focus of concern here is that the retrenchment of a firm such as Rolls Royce rarefies the Industrial Commons that it supports and by which it is -in turn- supported. Pisano and Shih argue that manufacturing is essential for the development of new products: it connects product and process innovation. In contrast, the decline of manufacturing invokes a negative ‘chain reaction’ in which the infrastructure for advanced process engineering and the attendant expertise and jobs are diminished. The high-value up and down stream supply chains that network around firms such as Rolls Royce will be lost or offshored.

Whither the future?

It is not possible for governments to support every company. Governments can, though, act to shape the nature of their economies. UK high-value manufacturing and the Foundation Industries that underpin it, must, however, be supported. UK manufacturing accounts for around 10% of GDP value added. This is an ever-diminishing proportion of the economy and well behind Japan and Germany’s 20% of GDP value added. It should not be allowed to fall further. In 2017 the UK spent around 1.7% of its GDP on R&D. The ambition of the UK government is for this to reach 2.4% by 2027. Assuming other countries do not also raise their games, this will raise the UK from 21st to 12th in the international league table of R&D spending. The government needs to be more ambitious.

Through its Industrial Strategy, (explicitly connected to addressing investment in R&D), the UK government appears to have understood the challenges faced by UK Inc. and specifically, through the Aerospace Sector Deal, companies such as Rolls Royce. This strategy though, must be implemented with great determination, emphasise the local dimension and crucially, it must endure.

In the here and now, the COVID crisis poses a clear and present danger to the economies of all industrialised nations. Through its announcement of, ‘Project Birch’ (26.5.20) to rescue industries badly affected by the COVID crisis, whose demise might ‘disproportionately’ affect the economy, the UK government appears to has recognised this. The call by some in the UK trade union movement for a National Council for Recovery, that would represent a range of stakeholders, seems a sensible, indeed essential, step that must ultimately reflect a broader engagement with manufacturing, hence the future of the UK economy.

Covid-19 and the impact on gender equality

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By Dr Helen Norman,
Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change

Covid-19 is the worst public health crisis for a generation that it is fast becoming an economic crisis with gendered impacts. Although men make up three quarters of coronavirus critical care patients, women are at greater risk of contagion due to their higher concentration in frontline work. Of the ‘key workers’ identified by the UK government as essential to the provision of services during the pandemic, 60% are women.

The labour market

Women are more exposed to the risk of redundancy and low pay because of their precarious position on the labour market. Not only do women make up the majority of the UK’s low paid earners, they also comprise a higher proportion of those in part-time employment (74%), part-time self-employment (59%), temporary employment (54%) and on zero-hours contracts (54%). Women and low paid earners have also been some of the hardest hit by the shutdown of businesses. Women are around a third more likely to work in a sector that has now shut down with one in six (17%) female employees working in such sectors compared to one in seven (13%) of their male counterparts.

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Care and domestic work

Women already do twice as much unpaid work at home so are more likely to assume the burden of additional caring responsibilities that has resulted from the closure of schools and nurseries. This is perpetuated by a persistent gender pay gap, which creates a financial logic for the second earner within a couple (usually the women) to reduce or exit paid work, as well as prevalent norms and beliefs about gender roles. Lone parents (90% of whom are women) are likely to find it even more difficult to reconcile work and care, particularly as access to informal networks of friends and family is restricted.
How has the government responded?

A ‘furlough’ salary retention scheme was introduced on 11 March, which will help some but not all – such as the self-employed. It is not possible to request furlough on a part-time basis – an option that would help both parents (within a two-parent household) to divide paid and unpaid work more equally. Where there is a choice, it makes more financial sense for the lower earner (i.e. usually the woman in a two-parent, opposite sex household) to request furlough so that the higher earner (i.e. usually the man) can continue to work. This has the potential to damage women’s earnings and career progression. The furlough scheme also risks pushing many lone parents and low paid earners into poverty because of the further reduction in pay. 45% of lone parents already live in poverty in the UK.

There is no right to be furloughed – both employer and employee have to agree. The recent surge in claims to Universal Credit may suggest that some employers are opting to make people redundant rather than furlough them, or they are reducing hours (and therefore income), which may force people who are in work to make a claim. From 16 March to the end of April, over 1.8 million people applied to Universal Credit – six times the usual claimant rate. This data is not sex disaggregated but women are more reliant on social security payments because of their disproportionate share of unpaid care and precarious position on the labour market.

What are the next steps?

It is important to consider the different economic positions of women and men in the response to the Covid-19 crisis, including the specific challenges that women face such as higher rates of poverty, the disproportionate load of unpaid domestic work and care and the increased risk of domestic violence and abuse.

The Women’s Budget Group rightly calls for a gender-sensitive approach to the crisis that also gives consideration to other marginalised groups such as the disabled and those already suffering race and ethnicity-based inequalities. It is positive that the Women and Equalities Committee have called an inquiry into the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 and the measures to tackle it are having on women and other marginalised groups. However, a more radical reassessment of how ‘low skilled’ work is defined and valued is needed, alongside a review of the systemic undervaluation of so-called ‘women’s work’ – such as cleaning and caring – which are critical jobs that continue to be undervalued and under paid.

The Coronavirus crisis exposes further the fault lines in the proposed post-Brexit Points Based System of immigration. But will it lead to a re-think?

Gabriella Alberti, Ioulia Bessa, Zyama Ciupijus, Jo Cutter, Chris Forde, CERIC

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The coronavirus crisis has ignited debate over ‘essential’, ‘skilled’ and ‘high public value’, and has brought into sharp focus the contradictions in the government’s post-Brexit points-based migration system. In this blog, and a more detailed briefing, we ask whether the current crisis will compel policy makers in the UK to rethink the narrow economic and salary threshold criteria that have been proposed to determine the eligibility of migrants to undertake work in the UK.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having profound effects on work and employment across the world. 4 out of 5 workers, out of a total workforce of 3.3 billion globally, have had their workplaces partially or totally closed as a result of the crisis.

The impact of coronavirus on global mobility and migration flows is also profound. The pandemic has led to an urgent re-assessment of the regulation of migration, with more than 200 countries implementing coronavirus-related restrictions on border entries, including on those migrating for economic reasons.

In the UK, the COVID-19 crisis has brought into even sharper focus the crisis of labour mobility that was triggered by the UK Exit from the European Union. Should the UK government should seek to extend the transition period beyond December 31st 2020, in order to avoid inflicting a double pain for UK economy from the coronavirus crisis and Brexit? More fundamentally, will the coronavirus pandemic force a re-think of the way that governments intervene to regulate migration, given changing perceptions of essential and high public value roles?

The Points-Based System: outdated and unfit for purpose?

The analyse the Points-Based System in more detail in our longer briefing paper. The main features are that all applicants will require a sponsor before moving to the UK, a job offer at the required skill level (RQF 3 and above) and a required level of English language, each of which generates a number of points. Other characteristics, including the salary level of the job, and whether the job is on the Shortage Occupation List can be ‘traded’ to reach the required points threshold to qualify a work permit.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there had already been widespread criticism of this new system by unions and employer bodies. The underlying approach of seeking to attract ‘the brightest and the best’ was seen as outdated and likely to lead to acute labour shortages in particular sectors. There had been widespread calls for a lowering of the salary and skills thresholds that were in the proposals.

The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the fault lines in this points-based system. Occupations that are recognised as essential in the COVID-19 crisis, and where migrants are heavily concentrated – in healthcare, healthcare, transportation, food processing and delivery – include many roles that are defined at low-skill and value in the proposed post-Brexit points Based system of migration. The proposed new system regulating migrants’ entry in the UK does not include a channel for such “low skilled” workers, only allowing entry in exceptional circumstances where workers are classified by the Migration Advisory Committee under a shortage occupation list.

Mass Brexodus?

The capacity to retain EU workers in these sectors will depend on the effective functioning of the EU settlement scheme. Yet, many EU citizens in the UK have already made alternative choices: to go back home or leave the UK for another EU member state where they can still enjoy free movement. The most recent ONS data for the year ending September 2019 shows EU net migration falling sharply by 64,000 and the number of EU citizens arriving for work at its lowest since June 2016.

Some of the sectors with the most urgent and pressing needs for labour to respond to the coronavirus pandemic are those that have been those most affected by this ‘Brexodus’. In healthcare, where unfilled vacancies are at record levels, there have been sharp declines in the numbers of nurses and midwives registered from the EU over 2017 and 2018. In agricultural food picking, there have been widely reported labour shortages during the coronavirus crisis. The same sector has suffered large falls in numbers of EU migrant workers since the Brexit referendum.

Some jobs classified as essential in the COVID-19 crisis are already defined as having high skilled and/or of high social value in the government’s mapping of the ‘value’ of occupations under the proposed points-based system. This includes teaching professional and nurses, for example.

But many jobs are not seen as essential under this mapping. 55 per cent of EU migrants work in occupations that are categorised by the government as ‘low-skilled’ under the proposed migration regime, and thus would not be eligible for the skilled workers’ route to secure a work permit. Included here are many caring, construction transport, food processing and packaging jobs. This has already led to calls for a rethink of the points-based system. Just last week, Liz Kendall, the new shadow social care minister wrote to the Health Secretary, requesting a fast-track visa regime to be created for care workers.”

Conclusion: Towards a future social value of migrants

Will the COVID-19 crisis lead to a re-think by policy makers in their approach to post-Brexit migration regulation? Will perceptions of the value of particular occupations and migrant workers in the UK move beyond narrow economic modelling, salary threshold and shortage occupation criteria, and how might this be achieved?

The current crisis may offer a new terrain for migrant workers themselves to show their ‘value’, not only to the economy but for society at large and to bargain for better conditions, beyond statutory and employer-controlled salary thresholds.

It seems to us that in the field of migrant labour the pandemic opens up a number of opposing scenarios. On the one hand there are utilitarian and draconian approaches focused on state self- sufficiency and restrictions on movement of labour. On the other hand there may be approaches which better recognise the inevitable interconnectedness of our lives, mobilities, care and survival in a world that cannot travel back from globalisation.

This blog is based on an ongoing wider programme of research undertaken within CERIC on migration. If you would like to comment on the issues covered in this report, or be involved in future events around migration, please contact:

Dr Gabriella Alberti
Email: g.alberti@leeds.ac.uk

Human Resource Management & Covid-19: Some Uncomfortable Truths

Written by Mark Butterick

The statement ‘people are our greatest asset’ is widely used by many employers. For some this represents a genuine belief from the top of the organisation. For many others, however, this kind of rhetoric can feel like pseudo-socialist guff that actually has limited -if any- meaning.

The recent and ongoing Covid-19 crisis has inadvertently provided a unique opportunity to consider leadership behaviours and the effectiveness or otherwise of contemporary Human Resource Management (HRM) practices. Covid-19 has shined a bright light upon many organisations, their approaches to HRM best practice and whether employees really are treated by their employers as ‘the greatest asset’ that they are said to be.

Presenteeism & Succession Planning

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Let’s start at the top. As the UK Prime Minister stood applauding the NHS on the steps of 11 Downing Street on Thursday 2nd April he was clearly unwell. He had tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday 27th March but stubbornly continued to work rather than rest. By Sunday 5th April Mr Johnson had been admitted into hospital. By Monday 6th April he was in intensive care and clearly very ill. Throughout this period the Prime Minister was unwilling to relinquish power even when he should have been resting. For a time he even tried to conduct business as usual from his hospital bed. Was this exceptional “Churchillian” leadership deserving of admiration. Or did Mr Johnson provide a personal endorsement of the ‘working lots of hours shows greater commitment’ culture that plagues so many workplaces?

In addition there was no obvious deputy to assume Mr Johnson’s duties when he was no longer able to hold virtual court from his hospital bed. The UK was therefore left, for a while at least, in a highly precarious situation. The country faced the very real prospect of losing its Prime Minister during the most serious national crisis in 75 years. A situation that was greatly aggravated by the lack of a clearly defined number two to take over the reigns of power. The seriousness of all this was clear to many. Why was Mr Johnson unable to take a step back when he became so obviously unwell? And why did he not confirm who his second in command would be sooner?

Good leadership necessitates an understanding of a leader’s limitations. It also requires the leader to fully understand and accept these limitations. Good succession planning requires strength, depth and resilience at all levels of an organisational structure. In terms of these two key areas of HRM practice the UK government exposed itself and the country to a potentially catastrophic and entirely avoidable level of risk. The underlying reasons for this will no doubt be debated in the future. But a combination of bad decision making, poor HRM practice and ego clearly played their parts.

The Value of Work

In the social media age that we all now live, the value that society places upon work has become increasingly distorted. Covid-19 brought this distortion sharply into focus. The England footballer Harry Kane reportedly earns £200,000 a week. A Band 5 Staff Nurse on the other hand can currently earn £24,214 to £30,112 a year. At the higher end of this a Band 5 Staff Nurse therefore earns in a full year what Harry Kane earns in a day. By any reasonable measure this is absurd.

Some will rightly say that this is not an appropriate direct comparator and perhaps it isn’t. But the kudos rightly given to healthcare professionals during the Covid-19 crisis has challenged the value society places upon the work that people do. Not only in relation to healthcare workers either. The same also applies to those who empty our bins, postal workers and the often zero hour workers who deliver our parcels, groceries and takeaways amongst many others. It now seems clear -maybe even obvious- that the relentless race to the bottom in relation to labour costs and the widespread lack of value placed upon so many employees now requires urgent reconsideration. A recalibration exercise is long overdue. But whether this will deliver tangible holistic changes in the longer term remains to be seen.

Homeworking is not a Silver Bullet

Picture the scene. It’s Monday morning and you are sitting in your car on the motorway. Every other car has one other person in it and the traffic is barely moving. You know all the pinch points along your commute and the timing cycle of every set of traffic lights that slow your journey. Your heart rate increases continually as the time you start working approaches. You pray that a broken down car or an accident won’t block a carriageway and make you late. Then came Covid-19. The 09:00 meeting that the technology-averse (often older and male) senior managers in your organisation insist on having in person is now taking place online. Not by choice, but because it’s the only option now available. The meeting takes place. The same or similar outcomes are achieved.

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Given this triumph of technology (all of which has been around for many years) will we now see significant amounts of work activity moving online? I doubt it. Whilst there is definitely a place, and indeed need, for more online working its limitations have been highlighted during the lockdown. Human beings are social creatures. We need to have human interaction. Softer interactions can be just as important -and sometimes more important- than hard outputs.

This said, with a fair wind, we now have an obvious opportunity to end the nine to five working day culture and foolish, counterproductive and polluting rush hour chaos this brings. All this can be achieved simply by using tried and tested technology more effectively. It has to happen. But the notion of the majority of workers simply getting up, working from home and then going back to bed before doing it all again is totally unrealistic. Many workers have always gone and always will have to go to “a place or places” to do “a thing or things”. No amount of technology will alter this significantly.

In addition, the goodwill currently being shown by many workers toward their employers has obvious limits. A limit that is fast approaching for some. Many workers are currently using their own equipment (PCs, internet connections, facilities etc). Employers will encounter significant challenges if they choose to migrate to a more home based operating model. Work/life balance considerations, training and development needs, setup costs, health and safety and data integrity are just a few HRM issues that require careful consideration. But there is clearly now an opportunity for more home working and there will be obvious productivity and environmental benefits that could and should flow from this.

Trust and Confidence

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In many organisations a doughnut model is operated by employers. A relatively small core of permanent employees at the centre of the doughnut is supplemented by an ever growing outer ring of contingent employees. An outer ring populated by temporary, contractor, freelancer and zero hour workers. After decades of outsourcing, subcontracting and the widespread peripheralisation of employment activity the so-called “gig economy” in the UK had grown to over 5 million by the time the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Anyone who works in the gig economy develops an inherent ability to pivot and change. They have to be resilient in what can be a Darwinian professional existence. Gig economy workers hope for the best but often expect the worst. This precarious world of insecure employment just got unimaginably worse due to Covid-19. With the likelihood of even peak and trough employment (often with many troughs and relatively few peaks) now snuffed out for many. When combined with other extraneous variables Covid-19 has effectively created a perfect storm for those working in the gig economy.

But what of the favoured few at the center of the organisational doughnut? Some of whom have often fought tooth and nail for permanent contracts of employment. Including the face fits yes men and women who don’t rock the boat and always claim to love their employers come-what-may. Has Covid-19 resulted in their employers repaying this loyalty and obedience? Apparently not.

A staggering 25% of employers plan to make permanent redundancies as a direct result of Covid-19. In addition almost half of companies plan to place employees in the “furlough” scheme. Many of these employees probably won’t return when the dust settles and normality eventually returns. Somewhat bizarrely the question of whether a company can use the furlough scheme to pay their employees isn’t means tested for employers. Unlike state benefits such as Universal Credit, which many employees -particularly those in the gig economy- are now finding at best unfathomable and, for many, inaccessible. For many employees falling out of what, until a few weeks ago, many may have considered to be “safe employment” the pace of recent events will come as a major shock. Attempts to access the benefits system will invariably prove to be emotionally damaging and exasperating. Many will question whether the system into which they have paid national insurance for many years is fit for purpose.

At the heart of a contract of employment is an implied obligation of mutual trust and confidence. As many of the projected 3.5 million employees currently heading toward Universal Credit are now finding out, however, millions of employers had neither the resilience nor a reciprocal commitment to them when the going got tough. For many employees the elastic band of trust and confidence was broken by their employers almost immediately when Covid-19 took hold.

Many employers have had no choice about this. But there will inevitably be employers who make tactical redundancies and adopt unethical HRM practices to deal with perceived problems and legacy issues. For some rogue employers the dark clouds of Covid-19 will have a silver lining. The impact of some employers adopting such approaches will be that the centre of some organisational doughnuts will become even smaller. The gig economy will get even bigger and levels of trust and confidence will inevitably deteriorate further. The low trust, low productivity puzzle that nobody seems willing or able to tackle will appear to be even more of an enigma.

Yesterday’s Greatest Asset?

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Dr. APJ Abdul Karam famously stated ‘love your job but not your company, because you may not know when your company stops loving you’. None of us could have accurately predicted the devastating impact of Covid-19. Or the speed at which this catastrophe has unfolded. But many thousands of employees are now indeed realising that the love of their employers suddenly ran out. The greatest asset, it transpires for many, is no longer in fact the greatest asset. Many workers will understandably -albeit belatedly- be asking if they ever were truly valued as their employers had previously claimed.

Major change is the only certainty that most workers now face. The ability or otherwise to adapt to the huge changes and disruption that lie ahead will have profound consequences for all. Two key choices now present themselves. An acceleration of the race to the bottom HRM practices of the past. Or a root and branch appraisal of and change to how we value and treat people. Nothing can ever be the same again though and those of us in the worldwide HR community will all hope that this proves to be for the right reasons.

Equal Pay @50: Making equal and fair pay a reality

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In December 2019, CERIC convened an event: ‘Equal Pay @50: Making Equal and Fair Pay a reality‘ in partnership with global law firm DLA Piper and the national charity The Equality Trust. A fantastic range of speakers included the regional secretary of the TUC, a CEO of a leading care service provider, the deputy leader of Leeds City Council, a leading employment QC (lawyer) and contributions from our very own team at CERIC. Professor Jenny Tomlinson shared her thoughts on the lack of progress in the area of equal pay; Professor Jane Holgate chaired the opening and closing sessions, while Dr Gabriella Alberti spoke about the experience of unequal pay in the public sector and acknowledged the University’s own existing gender pay gap.

What was amazing was the level of consensus from HR professionals, trade unionists, business and civic leaders, lawyers and academics that something must be done––and soon.

On 29 May 2020 it will have been unlawful, for 50 years, to pay women and men differently for work of equal value yet, there’s a persistent and stubborn problem of unequal pay. Some of this is because women are more likely to work part time (and part time roles tend to be lower paid) and some of it is because women face barriers to being appointed and promoted into more senior positions, but a significant part of the problem is that employers still use pay structures that allow discriminatory pay to exist.

A special mention must also go to out colleague in the law school, Professor Iyiola Solanke, who highlighted the issue of the intersection between gender and ethnic pay gaps.

A working group has now been established to see what are the next steps in challenging unlawful unequal pay. And finally, we cannot thank DLA Piper enough, the professionalism of their staff, and the quality of their contributions was only matched by the great facilities.

Status quo: good for rockin’ all over the world, not so good for education

By Jo Burgess, Postgraduate Researchers, Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC), Work and Employment Relations, Management

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Who said life was fair? No-one.

Although politicians are keen in their efforts to acknowledge inequality, the problem is owned by society and society is a slippery and vague concept. As a society we should strive for equality: me, you and everyone we know, but we are largely onlookers to the reproduction of social advantage and disadvantage before us. In our society advantages and disadvantages are maintained by a variety of means: economic, cultural and social which ensures that social mobility is among the lowest in the developed world. The focal point of both the cause and solution to inequality is education. This has not gone unnoticed by politicians, it puts me in mind of one who thought education so good he called its name three times. Not much has changed, however, and we find ourselves in our technologically enabled, emotionally literate, post-this and that age, as twenty-first century people with an education system defined by its ability to perpetuate the limitations and freedoms of social class. In other words, those spoken by Justine Greening, ‘The reality is that in modern Britain where you start still too often decides where you finish’ (DfE: 2017). The view of education as an engine for social mobility has dominated discussion since the post-war period but has failed to result in meaningful reform, this is particularly evident in vocational education and training where the status quo is maintained in terms of gender and social class.

Our attitudes and values regarding education need a radical rethink. A starting point would be to examine the dominance of middle-class values which shape curriculum, assessment and teaching; perpetuating social advantage in ways that are both visible and obscure. As a result of continued focus on academic qualifications entry to University has grown and created new problems that of the over-qualified and under-utilised increasingly occupying jobs previously held by those less academically qualified. In a labour market with little or no increased capacity for higher level employment the redistribution of low skilled work to swathes of graduates will result in a reinforcement of social inequality, and a generation of debt burdened graduates in unsatisfying work. The higher education premium has become more stratified giving advantage to Russell Group graduates, and the intended meritocracy and ‘knowledge economy’ are as socially divisive and class conscious. If we are to achieve greater levels of social mobility and equality, we must start viewing academic and vocational learning as having equal value.

The Further Education sector in the UK occupies an unusual place in the education system, simultaneously peripheral and vital. Skills education policy over several decades can be characterised by the cycle of continual change, resultant instability and loss of identity and purpose. The ghettoisation of academic and vocational learning facilitates disadvantage by reinforcing class boundaries. Everyone thinks vocational education is a good idea, but as Alison Wolf (2002) observed ‘for other people’s children.’ Vocational education needs financial investment, of course, but also time, effort and intellectual investment. Learning skill and competency in the 21st Century should not be the same as the 1960s, we have different labour market requirements. Young people, and importantly their parents, need to consider not just their career but the indications of future employment.

Reform in education is long overdue, the government’s T-level qualifications due to be phased in from 2020 is less reform than recycling and presents significant challenges for the FE sector which has been hit hard by austerity. A radical change to our education system would involve long term strategies (much more than the cycle of one parliament) which address perception and value in a direct and pragmatic way. Less follow your dreams and more ‘where’s the job?’ in our career planning. Critically, barriers need to be removed so that social class does not define educational routes and I am thinking as much of the middle-class aversion to vocational education as the challenges presented to working class university entrants. Despite the consistent improvement of educational attainment for young women over decades, within vocational education and training gender stereotypes dominate occupational choice which has impact on future earnings, career trajectory and life chances but also maintains sectoral inequalities. Policy is unimaginative and maintains status quo.

My research explores the reasons for persistently high levels of gender segregation in vocational education and how the intersection of social class and gender impact upon the careers of young women. The purpose of this is to define barriers to change and consider improvements. In aiming to influence policies and practices which could contribute to gender balance in vocational education this may have incremental effects on the future gender make-up of the labour market. Young people deserve to have opportunities which enable security and purpose. Life isn’t fair, but education should be.

References:

Wolf, A. (2002) Does Education Matter? London: Penguin