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19 May 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:32am

Coronavirus has exposed the dangers of our precarious labour market

The widespread use of temporary work appears to have spread the virus to the most vulnerable in society.

By Ailbhe Rea

Two reports dominate the news this morning. The first is an unpublished government study obtained by The Guardian, which concludes that temporary care workers transmitted Covid-19 between care homes as cases surged. The second is a report from the Resolution Foundation, which finds that workers aged under 25 and over 60 have been hit hardest by the economic fallout from the pandemic, with more than one in three 18-24 year olds now either unemployed or furloughed.

As new ONS unemployment figures are released and the IFS reports that new job vacancies have collapsed almost everywhere, it warns that ministers should be considering job guarantees to prevent young people’s careers being permanently scarred by the crisis.

The two stories are not entirely unconnected. While the crisis in care homes can be attributed to multiple factors (not least, a policy of discharging patients from hospitals into care homes, combined with inadequate testing and PPE), this leaked report exposes the serious consequences of having a sector so dependent on insecure and low-paying employment practices.

The long-term underfunding of social care has created tight profit margins in the sector, which has led to difficulties in recruiting and retaining permanent staff. This has created a huge dependence on temporary workers, who work between different care homes, often on zero-hours contracts and on pay typically below that received by cleaners or shop workers.

Managers and workers in care homes around the country have told us how, when the pandemic hit, they felt torn between a fear of spreading the virus between homes, and a fear of serious financial difficulties if they took time off work. Only last Thursday did the government introduce an economic incentive to allow care homes to pay workers extra to work in only one home, long after the epidemic in care homes had taken hold.

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This forms part of a bigger picture of insecure work in the UK, which went into this crisis with nearly “full” employment — but much of this work was precarious, and in-work poverty was on the rise.

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As we learn that the under-25s have been worst hit economically by the virus, and that almost a third of employees in their early 60s are likely to be receiving less pay, there is a danger of deeper and longer-lasting inequality in our economy, as young people are disproportionately trapped in insecure and low-paid employment and older people lack the means to retire.

The epidemic in care homes, in which more than a quarter of the workforce is aged over 55, is a chilling example of the knock-on effect of insecure work. Ultimately, we didn’t have the economic conditions to keep those in care homes safe. The UK’s increasing dependence on zero-hours contracts and agency work, and a gig economy that now employs almost 10 per cent of workers, should now be top priorities for reform.