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Coronavirus should signal a new era of workers’ rights

If there is one thing the coronavirus pandemic has taught us, it’s that our society’s perception of “skilled and “unskilled” workers is utterly wrong.

NHS workers rendered disposable by Priti Patel’s points-based immigration system are applauded every Thursday for treating chronically ill patients. Key workers deliver us the food and vital medicines needed everyday while putting themselves at an increased risk of contracting the virus with minimal sick pay. It’s not surprising that two thirds of the British public now say the pandemic has made them valued “low-skilled” workers more.

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Due to a combination of the economic necessities of the crisis and this shift of perspective, there has been an unfurling of generous rights from the government to protect workers. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has put in place a furlough scheme – ensuring temporarily laid-off workers would receive 80% of their salaries throughout the pandemic. Teething problems withstanding, the intention was there. The government has allowed landlords a mortgage holiday, and has paused evictions for tenants. Even George Osborne – architect of austerity – has come out in favour of radical spending measures to cope with coronavirus.

Clearly, those who said the 5th largest economy in the world could not afford to support its workers have been proved wrong. But workers’ rights should be for life, not just for crises – and mutterings about a second age of austerity could ruin all this good work.

Amid increased borrowing and debt, some have suggested a return to the disgraced policy to recalibrate the post-lockdown economy. They’re wrong. As well as the chronic under-funding of the NHS from 2010 onwards, that arguably led to the health service being squeezed in this crisis to begin with, austerity will punish the workers who have seen us through this crisis – condemning them to another generation of low pay and poor working conditions. Low paid workers are also at increased risk of coronavirus. What kind of gratitude is that?

After World War One – during which women proved their “worth” by taking factory jobs that men could not do while fighting on the frontline – they were rewarded with voting rights. In the months following World War Two, wartime measures like social security became permanent to ensure the population flourished.

As other commentators have rightly pointed out, the coronavirus pandemic is not a war. The UK is facing a virus, not a political enemy and it is crass to compare queuing for a long time outside a supermarket to hiding in a bomb shelter. But, as in the context of war, the UK faces a critical juncture and the foundation for a political sea-change has been set.

The government could change our political culture and ensure that workers’ rights are set in stone for future generations. The question is: will they?

Kate Plummer is a Reporter at Scram News.

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