Boris Johnson's new back-to-work rules are risking the lives of working class people to protect everyone else

Moya Lothian-McLean@moya_lm
Monday 11 May 2020 11:00
news

by Moya Lothian-McLean

On Sunday, UK premier Boris Johnson addressed the nation once more, in a speech that had been heavily trailed for a week.

A vague easing of lockdown was announced; “unlimited” exercise would be permitted from Wednesday and anyone who “couldn’t work from home” was encouraged to return to their jobs.

Later, on a media tour to clarify key details Johnson omitted, his stand-in Dominic Raab specified that the prime minister had been referring to workers within “big, economically valuable” sectors, like “construction and manufacturing”.

In other words, as LBC producer Ava Santina put it, Raab was talking about the working class.

Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief a truth widely understood but not universally acknowledged: workers who are paid the least, in jobs that are often deemed “low-skilled”, are the axis on which this country turns.

While the rest of Britain has come to a standstill in the wake of the pandemic, key workers have turned out not to be finance executives but shelf stackers, bus drivers and hospital cleaners.

UK consumers might have to currently stand in hour-long queues, two metres apart just to buy some eggs and apples but the fact that the public can even still acquire these items (and with them, a whiff of “normality”), is thanks to a huge supply chain of workers who usually put in long hours for little financial or social reward.

They have suffered as a result, too. As of yet, there is no comprehensive breakdown of the professions of all of the 31,855 people who have died of coronavirus at the time of writing but early analysis does suggest that those in blue collar, frontline roles have been, naturally, heaviest hit.

Male security guards, construction workers, taxi drivers, public transport workers and chefs have a higher mortality rate from Covid-19 than other professions. At least 37 transport workers have died of coronavirus in London alone, 28 of them bus drivers.

In April, Health Service Journal also analysed the deaths of 119 healthcare workers from Covid-19. Data showed that 69 per cent of those who died had been employed in lower-paid roles, traditionally categorised as working class, like nursing, cleaning or portering. Sixty-three per cent were also from BAME backgrounds; further studies have since shown that BAME individuals are being disproportionately affected by the virus.

The Office of National Statistics has already said that black people are 1.9 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people; those of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin are 1.8 times more likely and Indians 1.5 times. A complementary ONS study of Covid-19 deaths also showed that the poorest areas of the UK have a mortality rate more than double that of less-deprived areas.

Clearly, these are not unrelated facts: people from ethnic minority groups in England are at least twice as likely to live in the most deprived 10 per cent of neighbourhoods.

For Pakistani and Bangladeshi people, that probability rises to over three times as likely. BAME workers are also a third more likely to be trapped in “low-paid, insecure” work than white workers. We must remember that while White British workers make up the majority of the working class, BAME individuals are overrepresented in that group. And Boris Johnson’s latest guidance will put them all further at risk.

Ordering the likes of factory and construction workers to return to jobs that are almost impossible to do while socially distancing, in workplaces that may not been adapted to adhere to Covid-19 safety precautions is dangerous – it's not unfeasible that such exposure could lead to more cases and even possible deaths from the virus which the rest of us are being told to avoid.

Workers themselves may not be in a position to refuse to go back; if you’re a labourer earning £15,00 a year, who has been without an income for a month, what choice do you have but to resume work?

Employees do legally have the right to walk away from unsafe working environments, but in practice it’s difficult for those in precarious work or individuals actors to ensure those are respected. Unions can help in supporting workers but at a time when many fear losing their jobs altogether – and with high profile sackings of people who have spoken out about inadequate protections in their frontline roles – it is more likely many will stay silent out of fear.

Do Boris Johnson and his band of merry Etonians have any comprehension of the burden they’ve placed on the working classes?

For a man who once proudly declared that he didn’t know the price of milk, it seems unlikely.

His ignorance further shone through on Sunday when he followed return-to-work guidance with a plea to avoid public transport.

Where available, low income workers tend to use the less costly option of public transport for commuting purposes; one 2018 report found that Transport for London plans to cut bus routes would “disproportionately affect working class people” who had been forced to move to the outskirts of London by rising rent prices.

Lack of transport infrastructure means that more low income households own a car than not, but that’s also costly; a RAC study revealed that poorer households spend one pound in every five they had on running their cars.

What remuneration will the working classes, who have been asked to potentially risk their lives with a premature return to work, receive? Higher wages? Improved employment rights? Job security? Or will we soon be performing an additional clap for construction workers every Tuesday?

Class has always been a potentially fatal blindspot for the Tories. Previously they’ve managed to successfully shift the blame for the disproportionate impact policies like austerity had on low-income households.

But this time, the cause-and-effect relationship between socio-economic inequality and Covid-19 is so obvious, even Johnson should be aware of it. Enough.

It’s time to stop gambling with the lives of workers who can’t afford to say no.

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