The fragile society.

AuthorBrown, Lyn

Everyday life today, for so many of us, is desperately fragile. Poverty, inequality and insecurity have always had profound consequences for people's health; this was the case before the coronavirus crisis, and it is even more true now. The risk factors for Covid-19 include diabetes and other chronic health conditions that disproportionately affect the poor, like COPD and asthma (both of which are linked to smoking, air pollution and unsafe working conditions), and conditions associated with disabilities.

Equally important is the deep class inequality between key workers who have to go in to work and those who can work from home with their income unaffected and no extra risk of becoming infected with this deadly virus. Shamefully, we can expect the distribution of the death toll along class, race, and disability lines to mirror existing social injustices. Initial analysis from the Office for National Statistics has already shown huge health inequalities between the most and least deprived areas, and some reports suggest that it is deprived and diverse constituencies like mine in Newham where the age-adjusted death rate has been highest. (1) When this is all over, there will be abundant evidence that fewer people would have died, and the burden of risk would have been far more fairly spread, if our society wasn't so appallingly unequal.

We, in Labour, should highlight these appalling facts in the public debate, and work to ensure that our common life is never made so fragile again. This will require reforming broken labour markets, mending our welfare system, reducing runaway living costs and restructuring our society.

Reforming the labour market

Before the coronavirus crisis began, almost 77 per cent of us were in work, but often not in work that can be depended on to pay the bills. Three-quarters of children in poverty live with at least one parent in work. 3.7 million of us are living off unreliable pay, including more than 700,000 workers on zero hours contracts, and 1.8 million self-employed workers who earn less than the legal minimum wage for each hour they work. Labour is the party to change this.

Our advocacy for increased employment rights and for re-unionisation across our economy has been strong and will remain so. But if we are going to renew our mission as the party of workers, we have to do more than campaign for increases in rights; we have to face the changed and changing world of work head on.

Much of the rise in self-employment is bogus--designed by exploitative companies to further their avoidance of taxes and regulations, and founded on the coercion of workers who have been rendered powerless to resist it. It should remain our aim to use regulation, in combination with industrial strategy, to end bogus self-employment. Fundamentally changing the employment relationship will be the only way to end insecurity and fragility in these cases.

It is equally important to create policies that enable in-work progression for employees as well as the self-employed--and to focus strongly on addressing the needs of the least well-off in the labour market, who have appallingly few opportunities for training and learning. The Resolution Foundation has found that only one in six employees who were in low pay in 2006 had moved out of low paid work a decade later. (2) The work of the Institute for Employment Rights, the Learning and Work Institute, and others provides a good basis from which to continue working for greater power, and more workplace opportunities, for employees.

Not all of the changes working their way through our economy are necessarily malign, however, and increasing numbers of Labour voters want us to better engage...

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