Since gallery worker Samantha was laid off in 2010, she was forced to make do on casual work and zero hour contracts. She’s now lost even those jobs because of the coronavirus crisis.
Samantha, who worked at Nottingham university’s Lakeside Arts gallery, is one of the millions of people who are “scared and frightened” as they face unemployment and poverty. “I don’t wake up in the morning feeling too pleased with myself,” she told Socialist Worker.
“I’ve not been unemployed since I was 16 or 17 years old, I’m now 63 and it’s shocking. I’ve just looked at my bank account. I’ve slipped into getting Universal Credit and that seems incredibly depressing.
“I’ve been putting my head in the sand, I can hardly bear to think about it.”
Millions fear for their jobs as chancellor Rishi Sunak winds down the job retention scheme. The furlough saw the state subsidise the bosses’ bills and pay up to 80 percent of wages for ten million workers.
Sunak reduced it to 70 percent on 1 September. It will go down further to 60 percent on 1 October—and will end totally on 31 October.
Bosses are slashing jobs to protect their profits amid the pandemic and local lockdowns. Over 700,000 workers could be thrown into unemployment this autumn, according to the Institute of Employment Studies.
And bosses have already axed 156,000 jobs in the three months to July. They include thousands of jobs at car maker BMW, London Heathrow and Gatwick airports and British Airways, and retailers Debenhams and Marks & Spencer.
Laila worked at Debenhams for seven years before she was among the 4,000 workers laid off on 11 August. She told Socialist Worker they all face a “very scary prospect” because “we didn’t have much savings as minimum wage workers”.
“By the end of September lots of people will be struggling to pay rent and bills,” she said. “I dread to think what kind of situation lots of colleagues will be in.”
After being furloughed from the beginning of the lockdown, Debenhams bosses invited workers to a conference call via text.
During the conference call, Laila explained, the store manager “read out a roll call of names and said we have three days notice”. “The manager read out some ‘frequently asked questions’—which weren’t the questions we wanted to ask—then ended the call,” she said.
The number of people out of work goes beyond those who’ve been sacked recently. Around five million workers were “away from work” in July, according to the Office for National Statistics.
This figure includes furloughed workers—and those on zero hours or casual contracts who are unemployed in all but name. Some bosses are looking for ways to push workers out as the furlough wound down.
Call centre worker Jeremy worked for Wincanton Logistics, a company that handles a contract delivering upmarket furniture for Marks and Spencer. He says the company “put me in a position where I had to resign because I couldn’t do the job”.
“I was on furlough but only employed on a six month contract that had long since expired,” he told Socialist Worker.
“I was only meant to be there during the peak months between November and March and they clearly didn’t want me back.
In August the firm wanted him to return to work to do a different job.
“I couldn’t do the training because of social distancing,” said Jeremy. “If you’re sacked or dismissed it’s a black mark against your name, but if you resign they give you a reasonably good reference.”
Jeremy now has to survive on £283 from the Personal Independence Payment (Pip) benefit for a spinal problem and £68 a month pension from an old job. “At the moment a third of it—about £109 a month—goes on council tax,” he said.
“I’m looking at maybe selling things online, but not many people want to buy stuff in a small rural town.
“I was looking at my bank balance and I think I’m going to have to rely on the cheap stuff, the thirty pence stuff in Tesco.
Some bosses haven’t bothered to tell workers they’ve been laid off.
Jarek, a Polish migrant who worked at a sexual health charity, only knew he was unemployed when his money stopped in May.
He’s now jobless, homeless and fears he’ll be unable to get settled status to stay after Britain leaves the European Union.
Jarek had a meeting in early April towards the end of his probation period. “I was hoping it went well,” he told Socialist Worker, “they were meant to tell me where we stand.
“They never got back touch—no email, no phone call. I learned that my contract was terminated through a letter from the tax office.”
Jarek added, “I got my job through a back-to-work programme. It’s a charity designed to support people like me and I would expect higher standards. A humane thing would be to let me know that this is the result of the meeting.”
Samantha only found out she wouldn’t get any more hours at the Lakeside after she and colleagues sent a letter to find out what was happening. They got an online Zoom meeting off the back of their letter, but even then bosses weren’t upfront with workers.
“During the meeting the organisation described what would happen when the gallery opened in mid-October,” she explained. “We were making notes about how this might affect us and how we might undertake our roles.
“Somebody piped up and asked, ‘Will there be work for us?’ And they said actually no, the way we’re organising it we won’t need you.”
Unemployment has a devastating impact on people, uprooting and ruining their lives. As he lost his job, Jarek’s mental health suffered. “My self esteem has plummeted,” he said. “The career I was hoping to follow was stripped away, it felt like someone just pulled a rug from under my feet.
“Sometimes I wish I had just gone to the hospital and said, ‘Guys, section me,’ so at least I would have a roof over my head.”
Jarek also lost his home in north London, which he had been subletting from someone, and has had to stay with friends since.
In the face of this employer’s offensive, there has to be resistance.
While they were “genuinely taken aback”, Laila and other workers organised a protest on the same day and have been holding weekly ones since.
“We’ve no other option but to fight,” she said. “And the trade union movement needs to lead that fight—it’s not acceptable that it will just get worse for us.
“In the space of three weeks, we’ve had a remarkable amount of support and our protests have managed to shift our union Usdaw from inaction.”
Strikes, protests and occupations—not hopes of social partnership between unions, bosses and ministers—can save jobs.
Can taking a pay cut really save your job?
As the crisis deepens, bosses are pushing workers to accept pay cuts or face job losses.
It’s a common sense argument that many union leaders buy into.
But it doesn’t work.
In the face of an economic crisis, bosses’ aim is to protect their share of profits and keep ahead of rivals.
One way of doing so is to squeeze more out of workers by paying them less. Another is to slash jobs and force those left to work harder.
While it’s possible that a pay cut could stave off some redundancies in the short term, it doesn’t work in the long term.
It accepts the argument that workers, not the bosses and rich, have to pay for capitalist crisis. And once unions or workers sign up to this logic, bosses will come back for more.
This is what happened during the last recession in 2009.
Paul Kenny, then GMB union general secretary, boasted to the bosses’ Financial Times newspaper about the union’s “adult attitude”.
“It is difficult for union officials to stand up in front of members and recommend that they should lose pay,” he said. “It is much easier just to say, ‘No, no, no’ to employers.”
Adult dialogue saw GMB officials persuade workers to agree to pay cuts and short-time working at JCB and Cosalt Holiday Homes.
Once Cosalt bosses had trousered the money, they gave GMB 90 days notice of 280 job cuts.
JCB bosses pushed workers to accept a reduction in working hours from 39 to 34 a week, which cut pay by around £50 a week. GMB organiser Keith Hodgkinson was “delighted that we have been able to save 350 jobs”.
But JCB was even happier. It saved money, then announced plans to lay off 398 workers.
Once unions accept that workers have to pay, it’s also easy for divisions to set in. And the only ones to benefit from division are the bosses.
British Airways wants to axe jobs and undermine pay and contracts for cabin crew.
So it is trying to play off different groups—the legacy Worldwide Fleet and Euro Fleet vs the newer Mixed Fleet who are already on worse contracts.
Unite’s BASSA branch represents the two older fleets, Mixed Fleet Unite (MFU) the newer one.
MFU said its members were laid off so Worldwide and Euro Fleet workers could stay in their jobs.
Unions should fight to save jobs, not negotiate the terms of how much workers will pay for the crisis.
The battle for profits between bosses means pay cuts at one firm could spell disaster for workers across the industry.
Because bosses are locked into an endless cycle of competition with each other, when one firm does this, rival companies are forced to follow suit.
If firms that provide socially useful products genuinely face crisis they should be taken into public ownership. If they don’t the state should employ its workers and turn their skills towards something that is.
Whether it’s the need for action on climate chaos, housing or health and social care, there are millions of potential jobs. There’s plenty of money in the system—it’s just in the wrong hands.
But capitalism, a system driven by accumulating profit for a minority, creates vast wealth alongside poverty, unemployment and waste.
Winning a society geared towards meeting working class people’s needs means challenging the logic of the profit system and making bosses pay.