This week, Labour U-turned on its pledge to raise sick pay and guarantee it to all — abandoning millions of precarious workers to choose between their health and financial crisis.
Labour has U-turned on its 2021 pledge to increase sick pay and guarantee it to all workers. (Hollie Adams / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
This week, it was revealed that the Labour Party has further weakened its policies to strengthen workers’ rights.
Labour set out its commitment to ‘raise Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and make it available to all workers, including the self-employed’ in its 2021 employment rights white paper, A New Deal for Working People. But a document sent to party stakeholders this week confirmed the policies have been ditched.
Only last week, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner received a standing ovation at Trade Union Congress after telling attendees, ‘The next Labour government will strengthen and increase statutory sick pay’. Days later, the pledge was in tatters.
The U-turn is the latest retreat from the party’s pro-worker policies in recent months and one that seriously undermines the leadership’s pledge to tackle workplace insecurity.
The pandemic exposed how unlivably low sick pay forces workers to choose between their health and avoiding financial crises. Indeed, the experience of the Covid-19 crisis prompted Keir Starmer to use his 2021 speech to the TUC to guarantee sick pay to all workers and increase it.
It is worth emphasising that sick pay provision in Britain is uniquely inadequate. At just £109.40 per week, Britain has among the worst sick pay entitlement in Europe, with the average worker receiving just 20 percent of their salary compared with 100 percent in Germany, 65 percent in Belgium and 64 percent in Sweden. Only Malta provides a lower proportion of normal wages to sick workers.
The miserly level of statutory sick pay means that huge numbers of Britain’s workforce are an injury or illness away from financial crisis; four in ten say they would have to go into debt or go into arrears on their bills if they had to survive on it, rising to a shocking five in ten for disabled workers. Eight in ten say the level of SSP would force them to work when ill, damaging their health or engaging that of their colleagues.
There is a widespread recognition that sick pay at its current level is unjust and counterproductive, with two-thirds of the public and employers agreeing it ought to be raised. Unfortunately for workers, the one constituency that disagrees is increasingly the only one with their ear of the Labour leadership parties: big businesses that want to work their staff to the bone.
Perhaps even more pernicious than the U-turn on increasing sick pay is the reneging on the commitment to ‘make it available to all workers, including the self-employed’. In place of this commitment, Labour has floated a ‘voluntary’ insurance scheme whereby the self-employed can pay a portion of their wages in return for sick pay when needed — a proposal that would exclude the people the broken pledge was designed to help.
While many genuinely self-employed people earn a decent living and would opt into a voluntary scheme, significant numbers can not. The explosion of the gig economy in recent decades means the ranks of the self-employed now include the most exploited workers — couriers, food delivery riders, app taxi drivers — many of whom earn below the National Minimum Wage. The lowest-paid self-employed and gig economy workers would be de facto excluded from a voluntary scheme, leaving them without sick pay protection.
The U-turn on guaranteeing sick pay to all workers is compounded by Labour’s recent reneging on its pledge to end bogus self-employment and guarantee basic employment rights to all workers by creating a single employment status of ‘worker’. Taken in tandem, the U-turns on sick pay and single status amount to an abandonment of precarious workers to insecurity and exploitation.
Labour’s affiliate trade unions should be commended for putting pressure on the Starmer leadership to retain policies to bolster workplace rights — the party’s commitments to abolish both the lower earnings limit to qualify for sick pay and the three-day wait have been kept — but the salami slicing of policies aimed at strengthening the rights of workers at the sharp end of the labour market is alarming.
Workers in low-paid and bogus self-employment are the most easily exploited workers in Britain and the least likely to be represented by trade unions, and it’s increasingly clear that they are the most easily ignored, too.
Nye Bevan once argued for the principle of public healthcare by arguing that ‘Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community.’ This applies equally to the case for raising sick pay to the level of the living wage and guaranteeing it to all workers as it does protecting socialised healthcare — and it’s time that socialists and trade unions fought for it.