What exactly is fair?

One thing that is certain, is that the current situation has brought to light a new separation in the workforce – one that was previously undefined. The notion of the key workers. The UK Government set out what they meant by this here. What was striking at the time and remains so, is the breadth goes way beyond the definition that perhaps  any of us would have given if stopped in the street 6 months or so ago.

So we emerge from this, either as a key worker or not.

The peculiarity of the mainstream debate on the post Covid world of work is that it falls predominantly on two separate groups. On one hand we have debates about flexibility, working from home, the impact of too many Zoom meetings, which predominantly falls on the “non-key worker” group (I appreciate there are exceptions before this is pointed out). And on the other hand we have the NHS, who have courageously and valiantly been on the frontline of some of the most extreme situations in this event and demands for better pay and conditions.

But if we are truly to consider the future world of work, we need to consider it for all. That is in no way intended to make comparisons between groups, to say that support for one is by definition at the exclusion of others, simply to say that it is more complex, more challenging and full of contradiction than a simple Meme or tweet can assess.

The reality is that the we are going to see a lot of people lose their jobs – predictions suggest as high as 6.5m in the UK. People will lose their businesses, their livelihoods and perhaps their homes. These aren’t those “key workers” or those that are working from home, they’re the people that are furloughed, hoping that in some way, the economic stimulus will be such to allow their bosses to start up their businesses once more, or self employed and unable to provide their services yet with no Government support. You could understand  how they will look to those that can either work at home are deemed critical with some sense of envy.

Those that have been working throughout, with concerns and fears about their wellbeing and safety, the teachers in schools, the postal workers, those keeping the water flowing and the lights on and of course the medical and care staff are maybe less likely to be impacted by job losses and directly by the economic impact. Does job security and a decent pension compensate for the physical and psychological challenges they’ve been through?

And of course not all key workers are created equal, the delivery drivers that we have depended upon, bringing food and essentials to our doors. The people picking and packing in the warehouses, or growing and distributing our food. These are the areas where low wages, job insecurity and the invasive use of technology have been prevalent for so long. What reward will they get for their contribution? What do they deserve?

The current situation raises more questions than it does answers. If NHS workers are to be paid more, when tax yields will be falling and the Government has made such expensive interventions to try to protect the economy, how will we afford it? If our distribution workers and delivery drivers are to get more, who foots the bill? Would we pay more for our Amazon purchases to ensure a better lot? Should those people working in industries that can survive remotely be the beneficiaries, or should they be punished for their choice of work and career?

I don’t have the answers and I probably haven’t asked all of the questions. But these are the debates that we need to have honestly, openly whilst trying to avoid factionalism and reactionary positions. You could argue that all this is fair, these are the life choices that people make, or you argue that this exposes the inherent unfairness of our society and the world of work. Working it out though, is going to take time and thought and moving beyond simple statements, to consider the whole.

 

Injustice is at the heart of this crisis

I’ve written so many times over the past years about social inequality and the role that organisations need to play in starting to right the wrongs of many decades of looking the other way. Whether that has been through investment in skills and training, fairer recruitment or simply through the ways in which we contract and pay employees.  If it was an imperative before, it now becomes an obligation.

“People living in more deprived areas have experienced COVID-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas. General mortality rates are normally higher in more deprived areas, but so far COVID-19 appears to be taking them higher still.”

Nick Stripe, Head of Health Analysis, Office for National Statistics.

The fact that the mortality rate is more than double in deprived areas is a stark reminder of the systemic issues the underly areas of deprivation.  And whilst there is no more sombre measure of inequality than death, The impact of the virus won’t be simply contained to mortality.

As schools are closed, there is a disproportionate effect on those children living in deprived areas. Their access to technology, the role of parents and relatives in home schooling and the greater risk of disenfranchisement has been raised by the inspector of schools. It won’t just impact on those taking qualifications, but could impact throughout schooling, leading to growing attainment gaps for a number of years.

And of course, we mustn’t forget the impact on the labour market. Which will disproportionately impact on those in low paid, low skilled jobs.

“Some workers are disproportionally economically impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Low paid workers are more likely to work in shut down sectors and less likely to be able to work from home. According to the IFS, one third of employees in the bottom 10% of earners work in shut down sectors, and less than 10% of the bottom half of earners say they can work from home.”

Commons Research Briefing CBP-8898

Health outcomes, Educational outcomes, Employment outcomes. Three of the factors that are fundamental to restricting social mobility. And that is before we look at the disproportionate impact on BAME communities and the overlap between ethnicity and deprivation – which we absolute cannot ignore.

So when we are talking about the future of work, when we make statements about the structural change of workplaces, let’s try and take our thinking beyond the offices of the secure, educated and highly paid. Let’s put aside broadly inessential discussions about flexible and home working arrangements and how Zoom and Teams are going to be part of everyone’s lives. Instead let us start to debate the issues of fundamental, structural inequality and how we as businesses can step up and take our share of responsibility for the sake of our society, our economy and our future.