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Year one—workers’ lives in the age of Covid

This article is over 3 years, 2 months old
It’s been a year since Boris Johnson told Britain to “stay at home” on 23 March 2020. Sophie Squire and Sam Ord look at how that year has played out for workers—and how we have not been ‘all in it together’
Issue 2747

The Tories’ murderous failure to contain coronavirus has officially caused the deaths of over 126,000 people in Britain. But the real figure will be far higher as the government doesn’t count every death.

Over 4.2 million people have caught the virus as Tory failings let it rip through the country. Many are left suffering with long-term health problems.

Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown measures on 23 March, and they came into force on 26 March. Yet this was months after the Tories were first warned about the deadly dangers of Covid-19.

On 12 March he had callously announced, “Families are going to lose loved ones before their time”—but wasn’t taking effective action to prevent it.

Millions have been forced to keep working during the “lockdowns”, letting the virus continue to spread. The Tories have repeatedly claimed it is “safe” to send children back to schools and students back to colleges and universities.

They even bribed us to mix more in the summer with their “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, designed to channel more profits to the bosses. No wonder Britain became the worst affected country in Europe and one of the worst in the world.

And while Johnson and the Tories peddled the lie that “we are all in this together”, workers were hit hard.

Health staff were pushed to breaking point in their efforts to control the spread of the virus. Key workers such as bus drivers and supermarket staff have been put at unnecessary risk.

More broadly bosses have used the virus as an excuse to cut workers’ pay and force through worse conditions.

And that’s just the experience of those still in a job. Millions more workers have been sacked or placed on furlough in the past year.

More than a third of all claims ever made for Universal Credit have been made during the pandemic. Nearly 700,000 more people were officially living in poverty as a result of coronavirus by last November.

The story of a year in lockdown is one of crisis, suffering and inequality, but it also contains a footnote.

Workers have in some cases refused to pay for this crisis—and their struggles have won some victories.

‘We were put at risk for profits’

Companies have made mind-boggling amounts of profit in the past year, despite lockdown restrictions. Amazon’s total net sales in 2020 surpassed £270 billion. Net profit was up by 84 percent on the previous year.

Jeandre worked in an Amazon warehouse at the end of last year.

“I got the job because I was struggling to pay rent as a student,” she told Socialist Worker. “And Amazon is becoming one of the easiest places to find work at.

“It was cramped in the first warehouse I was in. It was hard to remain socially distanced, especially when you moved past someone else.”

Jeandre says it is hard to social distance in Amazon warehouses

Jeandre says it is hard to social distance in Amazon warehouses

Jeandre said that despite Amazon’s massive profits, conditions for workers are constantly squeezed.

“Amazon warehouses are usually far away from everything,” she explained. “I had to take two buses to get there every day.

“It cost £10 a day. That’s an hour’s worth of my wages. The company won’t pay any travel expenses.”

Travel problems pushed some workers to car share—increasing their risk of catching and spreading Covid-19.

Alicia, who works at supermarket Asda, described a similar situation with huge profits made at workers’ expense.

“At my store they’ve built a new cafe and restaurant as well as a Claire’s accessories in the clothing section,” she said.

“Billions are being spent on expanding. But nothing is going into our safety.”

Alicia has worked at Asda throughout the pandemic. “At the start of the lockdown the virus spread quickly while there were shortages of PPE,” she said.

“Even now it’s not safe. I work at a check out. We might be in a plastic box, but the supervisors and customers still get pretty close.”

The Tories have helped make some workplaces more unsafe. Kiki worked at fast food restaurant McDonald’s when the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was introduced. She said that to qualify for the scheme, food had to be taken to customers in their seats—instead of passed over the counter.

“It went through my head when I was serving customers all the time that what I was doing wasn’t safe” Kiki told Socialist Worker.

“Hundreds of people would pile into the store to get the discount. When there’s that many people you question how much even a mask will protect me.”

‘One of our workmates went into a coma’

It became mandatory for commuters to wear masks on public transport on 18 June.

London Tube worker Phil says unions had to provide masks for workers

London Tube worker Phil says unions had to provide masks for workers

That was too late for the transport workers who had already died from the virus.

Bus drivers in London saw coronavirus rip through their workplaces.

“Half of the drivers went down with Covid here,” one bus driver told Socialist Worker.

“There was a driver who died just down the road from us. One of our other workmates went into a coma.”

The driver, who works for bus company London United, said bosses had also increased drivers’ hours “with no prior warning”.

“Managers are saying the company is losing money,” he said. “We don’t accept that. The bosses make huge amounts of money year on year.”

London United has also scored funding from Transport for London (TfL), but drivers don’t see the benefits.

On the Tube, workers have fought dangerous conditions that put their lives at risk.

“TfL didn’t have hand sanitiser or gloves, and masks were provided by the RMT union,” said Tube worker Phil.

“Workers were scared to be dealing with others up close. There was no strategy to stop non-essential travel – that worried us

“We wanted the ticket barriers switched off to reduce contactless payments and only wanted one worker on the gates at a time.”

Bosses agreed to these demands, although Phil said they quickly reversed the safety measures.

But it shows that transport workers can fight and win.

‘At first, online teaching gave us a lot of freedom’

The Tories’ chaotic coronavirus policies have turned education on its head. Students, education workers and parents have had to adjust to learning and education online and at home.

Teacher Emma said online learning has become more intense

Teacher Emma said online learning has become more intense

Teacher Emma said at first it was a “shock to the system”. “At the start of the lockdown most of us were just using our instincts to get by,” she told Socialist Worker. “The way we had to do things hadn’t been decided.

“Many of us felt quite a lot of freedom and online lessons were more student led.”

But learning became “more intense” in the second lockdown.

“There were prescribed hours that students had to be online and learn,” said Emma. “This meant that this lockdown was harder for us teachers and for students as well”

Ruthba, a parent and nursery worker, told Socialist Worker that she has found the last year particularly difficult.

“My children are quite young, so when lessons moved online they really struggled,” said Ruthba. “I had to spoon feed them the information.

“My children aren’t used to working on laptops at this age – online learning is new for them. It’s a long technical process.”

The pressure has affected parents’ lives too.

“I wake up, get the kids ready, go to work, come home, clean, cook and wash,” said Ruthba. “That’s it, that’s what it’s like every day. There’s no free time for a working parent like me.”

But there has also been impressive resistance. “The fight to stop the unsafe return to schools has really highlighted the need for organisation,” said Emma.

“Now more than ever workers are looking to their union.”

Horror in the health service

Years of privatisation before the pandemic meant crisis after crisis in the NHS during the last year—and workers paid the price.

Katherine says health workers are burnt out

Katherine says health workers are ‘burnt out’

Katherine, a ddietitian for the NHS, told Socialist Worker she has felt “exhausted” and “burnt out”.

“The worst days were when so many workers were off sick, there were four on duty when there were meant to be ten,” she said.

“We’ve still had to see everyone and it felt like we were being forced to cut corners. A lot of the time it has felt unsafe.”

Katherine had so self-isolate in December for eight days after receiving an instruction from the track and trace system.

“It made me feel so guilty,” she said.

“But then I thought, why should I have to feel guilty? I’ve worked my arse off and haven’t been repaid.”

Katherine described Tory calls to clap for the NHS as “patronising”.

“When it was announced we’d only get a 1 percent pay rise, everyone in my workplace was so angry,” she said.

“It is so important that everyone in the public sector isn’t pitted against each other.

“Some of us are paid more than others, but we all have to fight for a pay rise.”

Michael Rosen – ‘Virus shows it’s socialism or barbarism’

Author and poet Michael Rosen was hospitalised after contracting coronavirus. He told Socialist Worker that the past year has shown up the horrors of a capitalist system.

“I was in an induced coma and in intensive care for 48 days,” said Michael. “I’ve lost sight in one of my eyes and hearing in one of my ears. The virus has taken me over.

“This year has really exposed to us that our government made a calculation about just how many of us could be dispensed with in order to keep the status quo going.

“They’ve shown that they really didn’t care about the old or the sick.

“As socialists we talk about socialism or barbarism and I’ve never seen it so naked as I see it now.

“We saw people over 80 being decanted from hospitals into care homes to completely overrun them with the virus.

“It is hard to really tell how much collective suffering is going on. How much the virus has impacted us will only emerge later.

“But people are angry now, the whistle is being blown and there is a push for a public inquiry. So many will want to know why their loved ones had to die and the government just didn’t care.”

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