Category Archives: Equal Pay

From a health crisis to a labour crisis? Omicron, Brexit and labour shortages

by Dr Gabriella Alberti, Professor Chris Forde, Dr Gary Graham, Dr Ioulia Bessa, Dr Jo Cutter, Dr Zinovijus Ciupijus, Dr Marketa Dolezalova

The new wave of Covid-19 under Omicron is proving to be another massive challenge for frontline health services.

The Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, has highlighted a crisis on multiple fronts in the NHS, with a mix of rapidly increasing demand for emergency services, backlogs for operations and huge levels of staff absence creating massive pressures. Even the Prime Minister has admitted that the NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed. The COVID-19 health crisis is once again highlighting and generating a crisis of labour provision.

Staff shortages across the health sector – from hospitals to social care – have been highlighted throughout the pandemic, for example in the 2020 State of Adult social care report. In Autumn 2021, GPs threatened to go on strike over workload challenges during the second vaccination effort.

Now, as Omicron spreads exponentially in the community, NHS providers declare they are at a crisis point not having sufficient staff to care for Covid and non-Covid patients. With the Government estimating that up to  25% of the workforce is expected to have to self-isolate in the next few weeks staffing pressures are likely to get even worse before they get better.

It is important to note, however, that the crisis of labour in health and a number of other sectors has deeper roots beyond the COVID pandemic. As we illustrated in our  August 21 blog, shortages of labour are entrenched in sectors like health, transport and hospitality, due to the end of free movement and a ‘Brexodus’ of workers since 2016. This has been worsened by the COVID crisis, through the non-return of the “missing million”  of EU nationals that left the UK during the first lockdown.

Yet, Brexit barely receives a mention in much of the mainstream media in commentaries on the impacts of the pandemic on work. In a notable exception, a recent FT survey of 100 economists highlighted the “lingering after-effects of Brexit” as a key likely contributor to a slower UK recovery in 2022 compared to other countries.  

These ‘lingering after-effects’ are likely to have profound effects on the UK labour market. Scrambling to deal with the labour crisis, the UK government has made temporary changes to the regulation of migration, announcing a visa scheme in the care sector to allow thousands of additional care workers to be recruited from abroad after it was revealed that more than 40,000 social care staff had left the sector in the second half of 2021.  

The new measures will start in the early months of 2022 with the new visa permits lasting at least 12 months with entailing the possibility of renewal, and for migrants to bring their dependants. In the meantime, the Department for International Trade is proposing visa relaxation for Indian citizens, under the mantra that this will facilitate trade deals with one of the world’s fastest-growing developing nations.

Are these measures an indirect admission that Brexit is not working as the government predicted? And will these measures work as designed? Is it sufficient to introduce new temporary immigration routes to fill gaps opened up by this grave labour shortage crisis?

In the first few months of our new ESRC funded project – LIMITS – led from the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change, at Leeds University Business School, we have mapped all the emerging changes to immigration rules in four key sectors: social care, hospitality, food and drink manufacture and warehousing/transport. Our goal is to look at the multiple and overlapping effects of  Brexit, the Brexodus of workers and Covid-induced disruptions.

Thousands of visas for HGV drivers and poultry workers were quickly introduced in 2021 after intense lobbying by the representatives of the transport and food manufacturing sector but with what results? A December news report highlighted the limited success of such measures in the past months, with immigration Minister David Foster admitting that less than 100 pork butchers applied for the 800 visas available. In transportation, despite a call for up to 5,000 HGV Drivers, only a handful took up available visas. These temporary visa schemes increasingly look like poor sticking plasters, which fail to recognise the deeper structural reasons behind labour shortages.

Our employer survey to be launched in the spring of 2022 across the 4 sectors of Warehousing, Hospitality, Social Care and Food Manufacturing will explore employer workforce strategies, including questions on whether employers are using and benefitting from temporary visa schemes post Brexit. Underlying questions that we consider in our LIMITS research are: will changes in immigration policy – even where dialogue occurs within sectors involving different stakeholders – be sufficient to bring migrant workers to the UK and address the crisis of labour.

As migration and work researchers, we also ask whether the government has taken into account the facts that the high cost of visa application and the increasing costs of living may make migration for work in the UK less appealing to those who have immediate and less burdensome work alternatives in the EU common market? Is a 12-month temporary visa really appealing enough to persuade workers to come to the UK in the post-Brexit environment? And how are current Covid travel restrictions and the overwhelmed NHS further discouraging migrants to move to the UK?

Research has shown that migrant labour mobility cannot be simply reduced to push and pull factors (or imagined as a tap being switched on and off at will according to the needs of the ‘national’ economy) but is embedded in much more complex networks and “migration infrastructures” that have longer and deeper roots in the ways in which migrants and their families evaluate and build their mobility plans and pathways.

These cultural, social and anthropological factors are often missed from policy analysis when migration is reduced to a mere outcome of changing demand and supply dynamics. The qualitative part of our 3-year research project will include interviews with migrant workers themselves who have chosen to stay or move to the UK in these critical times of labour mobility transitions.

The government is committed to a high wage, high skills and productivity economy based on developing the local workforce rather than relying on foreign labour. Critics argue that such a vision is built on “shaky foundations”. We note that this high skills scenario is often predicated on quite simplistic accounts of the ease with which employers might be able to automate key parts of their processes, as well as often rhetorical assumptions about the willingness or capacity of local workforces to join sectors of the economy that in fact remain typically low skilled, low paid and insecure.

Additionally, a highly fragmented training investment scheme, such as the one proposed in the most recent budget, may not allow for such a “high road” utopia to be trusted and adopted by employers. Some have called for a more fundamental overhaul of the skills system.

Policy outcomes and the economy at large may suffer dramatically from a very reductionist approach to labour mobility (as well as to local workforce planning and development). A more nuanced multi-dimensional, multi-scalar and multi-actor approach is needed to understand migration and skills policy. This is what we are pursuing in our research programme, recognising that labour and employment are regulated from both above and below and do not follow a purely functionalist logic.

If you would like to know more about the LIMITS project please contact Dr Gabriella Alberti (g.alberti@leeds.ac.uk)


Getting used to uncertainty: strategies for dealing with the precarisation of work. A new typology for precarity.

by Dr Vera Trappmann and Dr Adam Mrozowicki

Precarious working has been the subject of much recent interest and debate. Research has focused on the often negative consequences of precarity for those that experience it. Our new study of work experiences, living conditions, political attitudes and participation among young precarious workers in Poland and Germany has revealed a relatively high level of life satisfaction, and an attempt to cope with precarity in every best way possible.

Nevertheless, precarity becomes a biographical problem and our latest publication in Work Employment and Society shows under what conditions precarity becomes a biographical problem, creating potential for its individual or collective contestation and, in what circumstances objective precarity becomes subjectively accepted and “normalised” as an obvious and unavoidable element of modern professional biography.

Based on qualitative analysis of 123 life stories of young Poles and Germans, we have distinguished six types of life strategies engaged in by precarious workers. These types differ in expectations towards paid work, meanings subjectively awarded to the objective experience of precarious work, as well as roles played in these processes by economic, social, cultural and emotional resources.

The Labourers’ type combines relatively limited or devalued educational resources with the desire for stable work which will be well paid and, as put by one of our narrators, “from Monday to Friday, one shift”. This type sees work as a central element of their biography. It is the source of social integration, gives sense to life and constitutes a basis for obtaining economic resources necessary for the completion of non-professional goals.

Hence, precarisation here means not only economic uncertainty but also the erosion of stable reference points in a community. Due to labour migration, seen as a necessity, increasing competition in the labour market and in the workplace, as well as clear status differences, the subjective feeling of symbolic exclusion becomes for them more acute. In response, this strategy assumes self-limitation of needs and life aspirations, as well as seeking support from family which replaces the ineffective state and fragmented community.

The Professional type describes – in the area of work – a strategy combining relatively high cultural capital resources with the search for employment stability, good income and possibility for professional development. Work has an autotelic value as a source not only of income but also of social status confirmed by college diplomas. In this type, strict and clear borders exist between professional life and life outside work and the expected model of normal biography is white collar work (for example, in an office, in public services or a large corporation). Professional aspirations, however, clash with the reality of employment defined by uncertainty and instability, undermining the possibility for biographical planning and completion of institutionalised models of activity in the sphere of work. This situation is often connected with the experience of numerous unpaid or low-paid traineeships or apprenticeships. In this type, the precarisation of work is either temporarily legitimised as an unpleasant but necessary stage on the path towards stable employment, or rejected and criticised, especially among people over 30 years of age, frustrated with the continuing wait for stabilisation.

The Creative type is characterised by the rejection of the Fordist model of employment seen as too rigid, bureaucratic and limiting individual fulfilment and autonomy. Desired work should offer sense, evoke new inspirations and make it possible to flexibly form relations between professional and non-professional life. Creativity is associated with a high autotelic value of work which is central to life strategies. Often work in the NGO sector is chosen, within cultural and artistic projects which at least in theory offer liberation from limitations and routine. In practice, this strategy often is connected with significant bio- graphical costs (that is, high uncertainty of employment, low income and a blurring of the line between work and non-work). However, flexibility is seen as a standard and its negative consequences as the necessary costs of doing what you love. Due to sensitivity to social injustice and biographical costs of short-term project work within this type, we can find the symptoms of the most articulated criticism of work precarisation as well as direct identification with the precariat as a group.

The Bricolage or ‘entrepreneurial’ type is characterised by a high level of acceptance for flexibility and instrumental attitude towards work which is seen in the first place as the source of in- come. In the work sphere it is based on the search for new possibilities and experimenting with different forms of employment making it possible to maximise economic benefits. Professional experiences include different, often not related jobs or attempts at starting their own businesses, usually without sufficient economic resources.

Life strategies within the entrepreneurial type combine a strong faith in individual agency with attempts at achieving optimal, from individual’s perspective, adaptation to the existing rules, rather than trying to change them. Despite the declared separation of private and professional life, in practice this line is blurred due to working after hours, making extra money in “free time” or, in the case of small businesses, always being on standby and on call. Despite the encountered difficulties, the opinion that effort and life resourcefulness are rewarded in the end prevails. In this case an important element of individual strategies – especially in Polish conditions – constitutes temporary labour migration.

The Blocked type is characterised by a combination of the feeling of helplessness and deep life disorganisation with limited resources of every kind. Some of our interviewees remained in the state of “suspension” between education and full employment which resulted from the feeling that in light of insecurity in the labour market it is better to withdraw from definite decisions related to professional future. In this type the difficulties in the labour market are often accompanied by serious family problems or psychological disorders. Here, professional problems may be solved only after dealing with personal ones. The interviewees in the blocked type were aware of the inconveniences related to precarious employment and criticised it openly, however they were unable to take effective actions in order to change their situation. Overcoming this impasse often required active institutional support (for example, from the labour market, social or health institutions, and support from significant others). Our research suggests that objective precarity in combination with precarious life situations outside work made it significantly more difficult to leave the impasse and undertake other, more proactive life strategies.

The Withdrawn type describes a life strategy in which paid work has lost – or has never achieved – a significant biographical value. As much as biographical planning occurs in this type, crucial life projects are located outside employment: in the family sphere, to which some of the interviewees withdrew into following early parenthood; in the communities, alternative to the world of regular paid work, including cooperatives and communes; or in the form of informal work, part- time, performed in addition to the main life passions. The withdrawal from the world of work, despite the biographical costs borne by the narrators, is not seen as a problem but as a way of liberation from duties and control.

The omnipresence of precarisation for younger people leads to some kind of arrangement with precarity. Young people try to arrange themselves with insecure labour market conditions and in many cases legitimise why this is acceptable for them for a short period of time. Those who fail to adapt to insecurity in consequence often suffer from mental health problems, but look for individual failure. A structural criticism of the type of labour market or economy that favours insecure employment contracts and risky livelihoods is consequently mainly absent. This new typology helps us better to understand why this is the case.

Acknowledgement: The research was funded by the National Science Centre (NCN) in Poland and the German Research Foundation (DFG), the NCN project number UMO-2014/15/G/HS4/04476, the DFG project number TR1378/1-1.

More results of the research can be found at PREWORK – “Young precarious workers in Poland and Germany: a comparative sociological study on working and living conditions, social consciousness and civic engagement”

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.

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

JT Presentation

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.