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As the country opens up, we must address the issue of workers' rights

Spring is coming. Lockdown is coming to an end. There is a sense of positivity around. It’s not too late to make change that can last, writes Paul McNamee

Staff protesting workers' rights in Sidcup, South East London this afternoon. British Gas staff are on the picket line with a five day strike in a row over new contracts. Thousands of engineers have walked out over an attempt by Centrica the owners of British Gas to push through new terms in a fire and rehire row. British Gas strike, Sidcup, South East London, UK - 08 Jan 2021 Image credit: Grant Falvey/LNP/Shutterstock

Staff protesting workers' rights in Sidcup, South East London this afternoon. British Gas staff are on the picket line with a five day strike in a row over new contracts. Thousands of engineers have walked out over an attempt by Centrica the owners of British Gas to push through new terms in a fire and rehire row. British Gas strike, Sidcup, South East London, UK - 08 Jan 2021 Image credit: Grant Falvey/LNP/Shutterstock

The British Gas dispute feels like the canary in the mine. That is not meant as a glib gas reference. The issues it has surfaced will be amplified as we emerge back into normality.

The British Gas battle has been raging for nine months. It’s tied to the company’s fire and rehire plan. They want 20,000 staff, including 7,500 engineers, who repair and service machines for more than 3.6 million customers, to accept new contracts. Unions say the terms are terrible and leave loyal, long-standing and experienced employees much worse off.

The company says that due to a changing market, it needs to take radical steps to survive. Whichever way this ends, it’s clear it’s not going to be very positive for all employees.

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And it’s not just private company employees impacted. The one per cent pay increase the Government offered nurses and other NHS staff several weeks ago was greeted with anger and a general sense of confusion. All that work at the hardest of times, for that reward?

The story may no longer be front-page news, but it hasn’t gone away. The nurses’ union has a £35m fighting fund ready for possible industrial action.

Last week, Unite the Union launched a hotline for Amazon workers to blow the whistle on poor treatment of staff and help an agitation for unionisation and better workers’ rights.

The reality of pay for Deliveroo riders prompted an intervention from Marcus Rashford. Such are the times we’re living in that this helped suppress value of the company stock flotation. When Marcus speaks, markets get the jitters. That’s some power.

The ballot box remains the best place to make our feelings heard. We can make demands and hold those representatives to account.

All of this exposes a difficult reality. Certain jobs helped to keep people afloat and served very real needs during the dark times of lockdown. And as we emerge now signs are that similar jobs, and those particularly within hospitality, will increase in number as life returns.

While it’s clearly a positive to have an employed workforce, the value of the job, and the conditions, are going to become something that has to be addressed.

It can’t be that we leave it to the market. Clearly, Deliveroo will lose out if they don’t take challenges seriously. Investors will go elsewhere. And there are already rumblings that disaffected customers, angry at staff treatment, will leave British Gas.

But there is no alternative to the NHS. Even if we believe staff deserve better pay, if we break our arm or need a GP in an emergency we’re not going to threaten to go elsewhere.

There is a round of elections coming across Britain at local government, city and devolved nation levels. This is our opportunity to demand better of those who serve us. The ballot box remains the best place to make our feelings heard. We can make demands and hold those representatives to account. They have a responsibility to go beyond tribal lines.

There is also an opportunity for us to make more noise about better alternatives than those that currently exist. The third way of social enterprise businesses, that consider people as much as profit, have still to be embraced at real scale in Britain.

Spring is coming. Lockdown is coming to an end. There is a sense of positivity around. It’s not too late to make change that can last.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue. 

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