The stress and uncertainty created by the unpredictability of insecure work blights the lives of workers in ordinary times. But the Covid-19 pandemic has added a more deadly aspect to this lack of workplace power.
53.Coronavirus is transmitted mainly when an infected person is in close contact with another person. Those working on the front-line or in public-facing roles are more exposed to the virus due to greater interaction with the public. In this chapter, we will examine the interplay between an individual’s occupation and their exposure to the virus. We will also examine the relationship between pre-existing occupational inequality and how this was heightened by the economic consequences of the pandemic. A key type of employment that we will consider is zero-hours contracts, and how BAME people have been particularly affected by this type of employment during the pandemic. We will set out recommendations which, if implemented, would ensure occupation is considered as a risk factor when assessing the impact of coronavirus on BAME people, and we will also outline recommendations for mitigating the coronavirus-related impacts of zero-hours contracts.
54.During the first peak of the pandemic between March and July 2020, the country entered a strict lockdown, where, alongside many other sectors, most workplaces and schools were closed. Only those who were critical to the coronavirus response continued to work as usual, and those who did or could work from home were instructed to do so. The children of these ‘critical’ or ‘key’ workers could still attend school; in the Government guidance on which children should be able to access key worker school places, eight groups of key worker occupations were delineated.
55.Those in public facing roles risk greater exposure to viruses circulated in the general population than those in non-public facing roles, and certain key worker roles are at greater risk of being exposed to viruses than others. The Runnymede Trust informed us that front line occupations were often at a higher risk of exposure to coronavirus, compared to workers who could work from home, and that “the overrepresentation of some BME groups in key worker occupations increases their risk of exposure”. There is variation by ethnic group and the extent to which men and women of minority ethnic groups are over-represented. Compared to White British men, minority group men are much more likely to be working in health and social care key worker roles (for example Black African men are seven times as likely as White British men to be working as care workers). By contrast, if you compare minority group women to White British women they are not so greatly over-represented; minority group women are more likely to be working in health and social care roles but the differences are not so great. This is important as men, particularly working age men, may face higher risks of mortality from coronavirus than women. Key workers are at higher risk of infection through the jobs they do. The Institute for Fiscal Studies notes that:
More than two in ten black African women of working age are employed in health and social care roles. […] Indian men are 150% more likely to work in health or social care roles than their white British counterparts. While the Indian ethnic group makes up 3% of the working-age population of England and Wales, they account for 14% of doctors.
56.ONS analysis showed that men working in the lowest skilled occupations had the highest rate of death involving coronavirus, including cleaners, security staff, porters, carers, taxi and bus drivers. In many of these jobs, men from different minority groups are over-represented. We heard from Dr Nagpaul that “those working on a cashier in a supermarket may have been in close contact with 100 customers or more in a day”. Professor Lucinda Platt told us that Black African men were seven times more likely than White British men to work in social care key worker roles.
57.The term ‘shutdown sectors’ refers to the areas that were closed during the initial lockdown, for example, restaurants and hospitality, gyms and leisure, and non-essential retail. On 31 October, the Prime Minister announced a reintroduction of a strict lockdown, which commenced from 5 November and ran until 2 December. When these sectors have reopened, they have often done so with restrictions whilst others remain closed if unable to meet national or local requirements. For those working in key worker roles, there was a health risk due to the increased exposure to the virus.
58.Workers in shutdown sectors experienced a financial impact due to a loss of income. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), an economic research institute, found that 15% of workers in shutdown sectors were from a BAME background, compared to 12% of all workers. Some shutdown sectors had an especially high proportion of BAME workers; BAME workers made up 28% of the vulnerable jobs in the transport sector and 16% of the vulnerable jobs in the accommodation and food service sector. The Runnymede Trust informed us that nearly one in three Bangladeshi men worked in catering, restaurants and related businesses compared to around one in a hundred White British men, and while one in a hundred White British men worked in taxi, chauffeuring and related businesses, the figure for Pakistani men was around one in seven. The IFS found that Black African and Black Caribbean men were both 50% more likely than White British men to work in shutdown sectors.
59.The Resolution Foundation, an independent think-tank focusing on living standards, published a report on 28 April titled, Risky Business, which focused on the impacts of the pandemic for key workers and workers in shutdown sectors. It found that workers in shutdown sectors were “likely to be bearing the brunt of the economic hit”, and that this is:
all the more troubling because workers in shutdown sectors are the lowest paid. Typical pay for workers in shutdown sectors was less than half that of those in jobs that meant they can work from home–£348 a week compared to £707 a week.
60.While in general younger people are more likely to have been working in sectors particularly hard hit by the lockdown, this was not the case across all ethnic groups. The IFS published a report on 1 May entitled, Are some ethnic groups more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others?, which found that 24% of young White British and 29% of young Bangladeshis work in shutdown sectors. However, for the 30–44 year old age group, this changed to 14% of White British and 40% for Bangladeshis. There were also differences in the extent to which men and women were affected, with White British women and minority group men more affected. The IFS noted that the family circumstances of those affected by shutdown differed by ethnicity as older workers were more likely to be living in couples and with a family. Professor Platt informed us that while 30% of Bangladeshi men work in a shutdown sector and have a partner who is not in paid work, this applies to only 1% of White British men.
61.We were informed by Dr Zubaida Haque that BAME workers were overrepresented in shutdown sectors and they were “likely to experience a loss of income, redundancy, or losing their job”. Analysis conducted by The Guardian found that: in the transport and storage sector, which is made up of 18% of BAME workers (according to the analysis of the Labour Force Survey), 34,000 redundancies as of 28 July have been reported. The accommodation and food services sector, where 15% of the workforce is BAME, announced over 16,000 redundancies. This sector had the highest proportion of furloughed workers, with almost three-quarters of eligible jobs furloughed up to 30 June. Concerns were raised in oral evidence about the outcome for these workers when the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is wound down, which was initially planned to be in October. On 31 October, the Prime Minister announced the reintroduction of a strict nationwide lockdown. On 5 November, the Chancellor announced that the Job Retention Scheme would be extended until 31 March 2021. We will discuss the furlough scheme in more detail later in this chapter (at paragraph 80).
62.The Government defines a person as self-employed ‘if they run their business for themselves and take responsibility for its success or failure’. In 2018, 15.1% of the workers in the UK were self-employed. This rose to 20.4% of Pakistani or Bangladeshi workers who were self-employed compared to 15.1% of White workers. Self-employment was least common in the Black ethnic group, where 11.2% of Black workers were self-employed. Again, there are differences between men and women; research from the IFS showed that over 25% of Pakistani working age men were self-employed, compared to less than 5% of Pakistani women.
63.Certain BAME groups are over-represented in low income self-employment. This is especially the case in sectors that have been affected by social distancing measures like taxi driving and restaurant takeaways. In 2015, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) noted that self-employment rates have been rising amongst Pakistani men, and this group had the highest rate of self-employment in the UK. However, much of the self-employed work is low paid with few opportunities for progression. JRF explained that “this is probably linked to the fact that they have poor labour market opportunities”.
64.To help support self-employed people during the coronavirus pandemic, the Government announced that the Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) would allow self-employed individuals to claim a taxable grant worth 80% of their trading profits up to £2,500 per month. Numerous extensions were made to the SEISS as the pandemic progressed. The Resolution Foundation in its report, The effect of the coronavirus crisis on workers, said that the scheme is “less well-understood” than the Job Retention Scheme. It also noted that three in ten workers that did some self-employed work prior to coronavirus believed that they were ineligible for support.
65.We heard that some BAME people were not aware of the Government’s support schemes. Naz Zaman informed us that:
In terms of small businesses, we again made a concerted effort to try to raise awareness of Government schemes among the self-employed and small businesses. You have to remember that a lot of, for example, taxi drivers are self-employed. They might be on zero-hour contracts. I have had conversations with self-employed people who were not aware of the Government schemes. Had it not been for the fact that we sent out a generic Facebook post about the Government schemes, I am not sure how many people would have accessed that support.
66.In June, the ONS published analysis considering the period of 9 March to 25 May that considered occupation as a risk factor of contracting coronavirus. It categorised 17 specific occupations among men in England and Wales found to have higher rates of death involving coronavirus: for example, taxi drivers and chauffeurs; bus and coach drivers; and chefs. Data from the Annual Population Survey showed that 11 of these occupations have statistically significantly higher proportions of workers from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds.
67.The announcement of the PHE review into the factors affecting health outcomes from coronavirus said “where PHE has access to the occupation of cases, particularly related to health workers, analysis will be done on the outcome of infections for this group”. The PHE review considered occupation as a separate factor to ethnicity. Dr Nagpaul told us that he had:
called for granular information on occupational roles of those who succumbed to the illness and were admitted to hospital. That data has not been collected, but [occupation] is certainly another factor that has been suggested.
68.When the PHE review was published, it had not considered occupation as a risk factor when analysing the discrepancies in the impact of coronavirus between ethnic groups. The Minister for Equalities acknowledged this shortcoming when she said in evidence to us:
I was deeply unhappy with the PHE report that we commissioned, because I was expecting information around comorbidities and other factors, occupational information, for example.
The Minister committed to looking at occupation as a part of the work she is doing to take the PHE review forward.
69.On 5 June, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced an inquiry into the impact of coronavirus on ethnic minorities. On 5 November, the EHRC announced that the inquiry focus would be the experiences and treatment of ethnic minority workers in lower paid roles in the health and social care sectors, and it published the terms of reference for the inquiry.
70.We welcome the Minister’s commitment to consider occupation as part of the work she is doing to take the PHE review forward; it is vital that the Government examines the interaction between ethnicity, occupation and outcomes of coronavirus. We recommend that the Minister for Equalities as part of this work also consider the economic impacts for BAME workers, especially for those who work in shutdown sectors.
71.There is a link between the occupation of a person and their exposure, vulnerability and risk of contracting the virus. We fear that work on formally establishing this link has been significantly delayed. No clear assessments have been made on whether BAME workers in shutdown sectors have experienced a loss of income. We believe that the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the experiences and treatment of ethnic minority workers in lower paid roles in the health and social care sector should be the start, but not the extent, of its work in assessing the relationship between coronavirus, occupation and inequality. We recommend that the Equality and Human Rights Commission extends the terms of reference for the inquiry and commits to considering occupation as a risk factor in a wider range of sectors. We recommend that the inquiry focus should investigate the economic impacts of coronavirus for workers and determine if there is a causal link between occupation and exposure, infection and mortality rates.
72.Those classed as being in insecure employment includes agency, casual, and seasonal workers. It includes those whose main job is on a zero-hours contract and the self-employed who are paid less than the National Living Wage. Being in insecure work often means not knowing how many hours of work will be available and not having a consistent income stream. It also means that often some of the rights and protections like sick pay and maternity leave are not applicable.
73.The Carnegie Trust informed us that BAME people are more likely to be in insecure work compared to their White counterparts. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) report, Insecure work and ethnicity, published in June 2017 found that the experience of insecure work differs between different ethnic groups, but the overall pattern was one in which BAME workers were “significantly disadvantaged in the labour market”. It found that, “1 in 13 BAME employees are in insecure work, and strikingly 1 in 8 Black employees are in insecure work, the [national] average is 1 in 17”. We were told that some BAME people who were in insecure work were not just working one job but were “holding down two or three jobs”. Cym D’Souza, Chair of BMENational, told us that BAME people “are not just doing one job. It is really complicated for them if they lose income. It is not as simple as being in one permanent job”.
74.In the context of the pandemic, being in insecure work is problematic. We have been told that some people in precarious employment do not meet the strict eligibility criteria for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). This means that if a worker in insecure employment develops coronavirus, they may be unable to claim SSP.
75.We were also told that insecure work is often low-paid, and that those in insecure work often have less savings because they do not have enough income to cover their expenses while also saving. Thus, workers in insecure employment are unlikely to have an economic safety net. The Runnymede Trust’s report The Colour of Money, published in April 2020, found that while Indian households have 90–95p for every £1 of White British wealth, Pakistani households have around 50p, Black Caribbean households have around 20p, and Black African and Bangladeshi households approximately 10p.
76.Dr Zubaida Haque also raised concerns that during the pandemic some groups were losing their jobs more than others, telling us, “I have also looked a little bit at data that is being collected currently on who is losing employment. While the furlough scheme has protected many jobs, we can see again that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black African workers seem to be losing work at higher rates”. We also heard that some BAME people cannot access the Government’s furlough arrangements because they do not work in the types of job that are conducive to the furlough scheme, and that BAME people may not know that this support exists.
77.Zero-hours contracts are a flexible option of work for employers and workers; the employer does not have to offer minimum working hours and the worker does not have to take the work offered. They are widely used in particular sectors like the ‘gig economy’, care, hospitality, and retail. The Marmot Review 10 Years On found that workers from BAME groups were more likely to be on zero-hours contracts than White workers: one in 24 BAME workers were on a zero-hours contract compared with one in 42 White workers.
78.We heard from Dr Haque that BAME people are disproportionately overrepresented in zero-hours and insecure contracts. The Carnegie Trust UK, a charitable institution that works across the UK to promote well-being, informed us that Pakistani young adults are more likely to be working shifts, without a permanent contract, or on a zero-hours contract than White young adults. They also informed us that Black Africans were in a more precarious employment position compared to their White counterparts and more likely to be at risk of unemployment, working in shift work, without a permanent contract.
79.During the initial national lockdown, people on zero-hours contracts felt like they had to choose between staying at home and not having enough money to pay their expenses or going to work and risking their health. We heard about the lived experience of Barbara Palmer, a nurse on a zero-hours contract. She told us that she felt that throughout the lockdown period, she had no choice except to work:
A lot of us are part-time workers who have zero-hour contracts and therefore are, essentially, no work, no pay. When you have your families to attend to, it puts you in a position where you feel you have to work. It can be quite challenging, in terms of having a real choice at times of whether to work or not. We do not always have the financial support. Perhaps there are other people and therefore it can be quite challenging.
Toynbee Hall, a charitable institution based in East London, also told us that some of their BAME community members, who worked in the gig economy or on zero-hours contracts, “felt they had to choose between working in environments where they were at risk of contracting the virus or being unable to support their families financially”. Similarly, the TUC told us that for some BME people:
pay in temporary and zero-hours jobs is typically a third less an hour than for those on permanent contracts. This places many BME workers and their families under significant financial stress and has constrained the choices that these workers have during the pandemic around whether they can afford not to attend work.
80.On 20 March, the Chancellor announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: the Government would cover 80% of worker’s wages up to £2,500 per month. It was initially intended to cover wages from 1 March to 31 May; but was extended to cover wages until 30 June. On 12 June, the Government announced changes to how the Scheme would operate from 1 July to 31 October. On 5 November, the Chancellor announced that the Job Retention Scheme would be extended until 31 March 2021. Criteria which needed to be met for an employee to be eligible for furlough were established, such as registered to pay income tax through PAYE. The eligibility guidance for the Government’s furlough scheme states that zero-hours contract workers and agency workers could be furloughed if they were employed through an agency, while accompanying guidance states what employees can do when on furlough.
81.We received evidence that some BAME workers on zero-hours contracts were being refused furlough by their employers. This has raised concerns over how the zero-hours contract policy operates. As a part of the Scheme, employers decide which employees to furlough. This has created issues for those on zero-hours contracts because instead of furloughing a zero-hours contract worker, an employer could reduce their working hours down to zero. In some cases, employers find it easier to rely on contractual provisions and reduce hours than incur the administrative effort to register their employee for furlough. Being denied furlough and also not being offered work has led to a loss of income. Being over-represented amongst zero-hours contract workers, BAME people are at particular risk of experiencing this.
82.From 13 March, employees, defined as those who paid Class 1 National Insurance contributions, were eligible to claim SSP, this included agency workers and those on zero-hours contracts. SSP was available to those who needed to self-isolate or were unable to work due to sickness. Individuals may have needed to self-isolate for a number of reasons, for example, they or someone in their household had coronavirus symptoms; they had been told to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace programme; or they were ‘shielding’. The current SSP rate is £95.85 per week. To qualify for SSP, an employee’s wage must be above the lower earnings limit. This was £118 per week, but from 6 April it increased to £120.
83.Dr Haque told us that some BAME people on zero-hours contracts faced problems claiming SSP. She said that this was because of a “very restricted eligibility criteria, which means that a lot of ethnic minority people in precarious employment just do not meet the criteria”. Some BAME individuals on a zero-hours contracts found that they earnt less than the lower earnings limit. The TUC estimated that two million workers did not earn enough to qualify. In addition, to claim SSP, an employee has to earn the lower earnings limit from one employer. As noted above (paragraph 73), some BAME people rely on more than one job to supplement their incomes. This will often bring them above the lower earnings limit, but they remain ineligible for SSP. Dr Haque also said that despite the Chancellor’s efforts, “one in five zero-hours contract workers are not eligible for [SSP]. That is a problem”. Zero-hours contract workers who are self-employed, such as those in the gig economy, are also not eligible for SSP.
84.There are mixed opinions on the utility of zero-hours contracts: some argue that zero-hours contracts lead to financial insecurity for workers, while others argue that they meet a vital demand for work and keep workers employed. There are also other implications for those working on zero-hours contracts; for example, researchers at University College London found that young adults, who were employed on zero-hours contracts, were less likely to be in good health, and were at higher risk of poor mental health than workers with stable jobs.
85.To address these concerns and assess how zero-hours contracts operate, there have been numerous reviews and consultations undertaken by previous governments of the zero-hours contracts policy. Despite the reviews and consultations on the zero-hours contract policy, some argue that changes made have not gone far enough. For example, in 2019, the TUC commissioned a poll of zero-hours contract workers and found that 51% of workers on zero-hours contracts had had shifts cancelled at less than 24 hours’ notice. The TUC argued that “those on zero-hours contracts are often trapped in jobs that are so insecure they’re unable to plan childcare or their finances”, and “that’s why we’re calling for an outright ban on zero-hours contracts”.
86.We heard evidence that zero-hours contracts are a form of low-quality employment. Dr Andrea Barry, Senior Analyst at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, told us that “people not having access to good quality jobs means they are unable to pull themselves out of poverty and stay above water”. Dr Barry explained that, “when going forward and looking at how the recovery will work, it is vital that there is an emphasis on improving good jobs and training people so that they can work in these good jobs”. Cym D’Souza, Chair of BMENational explained that:
We have to have a serious review of—I will not call them contracts, because they are not contracts—the implications of allowing employers to employ people on the basis of zero-hours or short-term temporary contracts, which puts them in an unfeasible position in times of things like a pandemic.
87.Previous Governments have done much work to improve the zero-hours contract policy, however, this work has not gone far enough. The coronavirus pandemic has sharpened the focus on the systemic issues with the zero-hours contracts policy, including the disproportionate number of BAME people on zero-hours contracts. The pandemic has highlighted the unequal way that zero-hours contracts operate: employers can deny furlough to employees and instead reduce their working hours to zero. In some cases, workers on zero-hours contracts are ineligible for Statutory Sick Pay. We recommend that the Government extends the eligibility criteria for Statutory Sick Pay to ensure all workers on zero-hours contracts can claim Statutory Sick Pay.
88.We are deeply concerned by the impact of the zero-hours contracts on BAME people, particularly throughout the course of the pandemic. While in some cases and for some people, the zero-hours contract policy can be a suitable employment option, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the need to review the way the zero-hours contract policy operates and its impact on BAME people. The long-term impacts of zero-hours contracts, including the poor quality of jobs, should also be considered in the review. We recommend that the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities reviews the zero-hours contract policy and considers the disproportionate impact on BAME workers during the pandemic. This review should be conducted by the end of 2021 and the findings should be reported in early 2022.
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