Monthly Archives: July 2020

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.

woman wearing eyeglasses in grayscale photography

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

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.