Advertisement
Opinion

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

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.

Lockdowns have taken income away from hundreds of Big Issue sellers. Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription.

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.

Advertisement
Advertisement

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. 

Advertisement

Bigger Issues need bigger solutions

Big Issue Group is creating new solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunities for the 14.5 million people living in poverty to earn, learn and thrive. Big Issue Group brings together our media and investment initiatives as well as a diverse and pioneering range of new solutions, all of which aim to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity. Learn how you can change lives today.

Recommended for you

Read All
Liz Truss takes the credit for my idea, but the underlying causes of inequality remain
John Bird

Liz Truss takes the credit for my idea, but the underlying causes of inequality remain

Gordon Brown: 'A poverty time-bomb is ticking across Britain'
Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown: 'A poverty time-bomb is ticking across Britain'

Even the cats on the street know a storm is coming, yet the leadership circus goes on
Opinion

Even the cats on the street know a storm is coming, yet the leadership circus goes on

Sam Delaney: My teenage daughter and her mates terrify me
Sam Delaney

Sam Delaney: My teenage daughter and her mates terrify me

Most Popular

Read All
All the places where kids can eat free during the summer holidays
1.

All the places where kids can eat free during the summer holidays

This Twitter bot is exposing celebrities taking three-minute private jet flights
2.

This Twitter bot is exposing celebrities taking three-minute private jet flights

Will free school meals and vouchers be offered over the summer holidays?
3.

Will free school meals and vouchers be offered over the summer holidays?

Estate agents caught saying they don't rent homes to people on benefits
4.

Estate agents caught saying they don't rent homes to people on benefits

Keep up to date with the Big Issue. The leading voice on life, politics, culture and social activism direct to your inbox.