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Five lessons a year of Covid taught us about low-skilled workers’ rights

The Work Rights Centre supports migrant workers out of precarious work and into lawful employment. Covid pushed many to the brink, writes WoRC director Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol
Low-skilled workers have had a difficult time of it in the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Work Rights Centre. Image credit: Pexels

The year of Covid pushed migrant workers in the low-skilled sector to the limit.

At the Work Rights Centre (WoRC), our mission is to help UK and EU nationals exit precarious work, and equip them with the tools to access fair and lawful employment. We believe that exiting poorly paid, unprotected and insecure work always starts with understanding your employment status. From March 1 2020 to March 10 2021, our advisers heard from 1,057 people. This is double the volume of enquiries last year.

This year we released our One Year of Covid report, examining those enquiries to see what we could learn.The issues they brought to our attention reflect the impact of Covid on economic activity and the uncertainty of Brexit. These are the top five things we’ve learned during this rollercoaster of a year.

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Workers’ concerns changed during the pandemic, from quality to security

A year before the pandemic, almost half of the enquiries we received were related to what we call “job quality” – questions about payment, grievances, discrimination, or bullying in the workplace. By contrast, these constituted barely a quarter in the year of Covid. Instead, the past 12 months were characterised by a shift to enquiries about the government’s coronavirus support schemes, “job security”, unemployment, and increasingly, financial help.

  • one in four struggled to understand the Government’s Covid support schemes
  • one in five required urgent financial help

A question that was frequently asked was: “how do I apply for furlough”. Migrant workers often found it difficult to accept that furlough was a possibility, left to the latitude of employers, and not a right of all.

We also heard twice as many questions about “job security”, which we define as enquiries about redundancy, unfair dismissals, or disciplinary action, and saw a big increase in questions from people who were unemployed.

Universal Credit is a fragile lifeline

The loss of work and the inaccessibility of furlough meant that many people turned to Universal Credit. One in five beneficiaries required urgent financial help, including UC, food and fuel vouchers. In many cases, however, this access was severely limited – when informal housing arrangements excluded applicants from the ‘housing element’, reduced the value of UC to as little as £410/month; and most seriously or recent EU migrants with pre-settled status were deemed to have failed the Habitual Residence Test.

We cannot understate the pressure of relying on food banks. This is amplified by monthly voucher limits, and by the serious disparities in the availability of food banks across the UK. This is something that needs addressing fast.

There were gender disparities in how workers experienced the pandemic

Women were twice as likely to be economically inactive than men. From conversations with beneficiaries, advisers suspect that this inactivity was shaped by childcare duties, and a combination of low wages and high child care costs, which made it more economical to take time off work altogether. 

What we do know with certainty however, is that women were more vulnerable to needing urgent financial support.

One constant across both gender groups was the prevalence of black market work. A significant minority of six per cent of men and women, recounted working in informal positions without any terms of agreement. This was not out of choice. Many of the people in this status were not even aware of it.

The prevalence of informal work arrangements matters. During the year of Covid, informality was not only a risk to employment rights. It also excluded workers from government support schemes and, crucially, from other contribution-based social security entitlements.

Dora Olivia Vicol Work Rights Centre
DoraOliviaVicol 2020
Work Rights Centre director Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol says the charity found many migrant workers had been pushed to the limit during the pandemic. Image credit: Work Rights Centre

EU nationals need to have their rights protected

Despite the Government’s ambition to ‘get Brexit done’, Brexit was still very much on EU migrants’ minds. The share of EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) related questions was comparable to last year, raised by 18 per cent and, respectively, 19 per cent of all beneficiaries. What had changed, however, was the nature of enquiries. If 2019 was dominated by questions about how to apply for the EUSS, this year it was about the rights under the scheme – namely, the rights of children, family, and the rights of pre-settled status holders after a period of absence.

Many EU nationals returned to their home countries during the pandemic, hoping to save on rent costs, see family, or access medical services. Transnational travel restrictions and local forms of lockdown made it difficult to return to the UK, leading to periods of extended absence and concerns that they would lose their right to settle in the UK. Under the current rules, EU nationals with pre-settled status who accumulate an absence of more than six months in any 12-month period, retain their right to re-enter the UK, but risk losing their right to settle after their pre-settled status expires (five years after being granted it).

The Home Office should recognise the extraordinariness of Covid, and protect EU nationals’ rights after absence. No one deserves to lose their right to settle in the country they call home, because they took six months to visit an ill relative abroad.

We must uphold a higher standard of good work

The Year of Covid has exposed deep-seated inequalities in job security. The Government can learn from it, to build a recovery centred on good work. For us, ‘good’ enables people to make a decent living. It gives them the financial security they need to not worry about tomorrow and allows them room to grow. This cannot mean casual contracts and short notices. We owe to ourselves to learn from the pandemic, and plan for a recovery that places good work first.

Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol is director at Work Rights Centre. For help with employment rights and employability, visit the Work Rights Centre website