by Mhoraig Green, CAS Strategic Lead on Social Justice.
This column was first published in the Herald on 8 July 2020.
You'll have heard the talk. This is an “inflection point”. A “moment in time”. There seems to be broad agreement that, while we’d never have wished it, the pandemic has given us an opportunity to press the re-start button and build a new economic and social order that swaps the unfairness of the pre-Covid era for a better, fairer way.
At CAS we are completely signed up to this idea. But we are concerned that all the optimistic talk may end up being just that if it is not backed up by specific actions. Yes, Scotland can build a positive legacy out of lockdown, but we need to focus on the practicalities of that, not just the aspiration.
CAS doesn’t claim to have all the answers here. But with our unique perspective of 80 years of helping people deal with their problems, we feel we understand the issues that need to be addressed, and we are keen to contribute to making the re-boot happen.
So over the summer we will use our weekly column here to set out in detail how we believe public policy needs to be re-focused. We will look at the role of social security; how we can help people stay in their homes; how debt holds individuals back and hampers wider economic recovery; and how telecommunications can be used to keep people connected both socially and to services. Today I will start by looking at the issue of employment and workers 'rights.
Since the start of lockdown the proportion of advice the Scottish Citizens Advice network has given about employment has swelled to three times what is typical. It’s been our biggest area of growth during the pandemic. And in particular, in the first three weeks of June, one in five pieces of employment advice we gave was about redundancy.
So, while the Job Retention Scheme (or furlough) was a bold and necessary measure, both governments need to think now about how to protect existing jobs as the economy recovers.
We would like the UK Government to consider greater flexibility in the timescales for winding down the furlough scheme, taking into consideration the needs of different sectors, and the different pace to the easing of lockdown in Scotland and other parts of the UK. We’d also like to see ongoing protection for workers who need to shield because they are more vulnerable to Covid-19. For the medium term we would urge more investment in new jobs, particularly in sectors that can have wider social benefit.
Scotland’s transition to net zero can be supported by investment in energy efficiency improvements for homes, which reduces fuel bills for individuals while boosting employment.
We also welcome the Enterprise & Skills Strategic Board in Scotland’s focus on employment for young people, older low-skilled, low-waged workers and women. Since long before Covid-19, we have been concerned by the prevalence of low-paid and insecure work, which makes it hard for people to budget and to balance caring responsibilities.
Many of these workers have been among the hardest hit by the financial impact of the pandemic – unable to access the furlough scheme or statutory sick pay. Others have found themselves out on the frontline, providing key services like care and food retail whilst better paid workers have been able to continue their work safely from home.
Scotland cannot plan a recovery on the basis of training everyone on a low wage into so-called “high-quality” jobs, because recent months have highlighted how critical many of those low-paid jobs are. Instead, the value of those jobs needs to be recognised in a new deal for those in traditionally low-paid sectors. A new deal based on higher wages, better terms and conditions and greater flexibility around caring responsibilities. This would involve prioritising the Scottish Government’s Fair Work agenda, with the care sector being an obvious place to start.
Progress towards the Real Living Wage needs to be accelerated across the board so that people are paid enough to live on. We want to see the UK Government introduce greater protections for workers on zero hours contracts so they can access income protection if they are unable to work or if their employer gives them no hours. And we also want to see them deliver the promised single enforcement body, to protect the rights of workers, for example, from employers who flout the law on the minimum wage.
These are not radical or new ideas, but without these kinds of changes many workers will continue to rely on benefits to top up low pay. And the social security system as it was pre-lockdown was not fit for purpose and is another area that must be reformed if we are to have any chance of building that fairer country we all want to see.
And we will outline our ideas for those reforms here in coming weeks.