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Workers ‘cast adrift’ during first lockdown, says Joseph Rowntree Foundation

09 April 2021


PEOPLE with insecure jobs or zero-hours contracts were four times more likely to become unemployed during the first Covid lockdown than the average employee in the same sector, new research suggests.

A paper by an economist for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has underlined the wide disparities in effect of different kinds of workers of the recession caused by the pandemic.

“Despite the measures to support incomes and jobs during this period of enforced social distancing, many workers have been cast adrift by gaps in the Government’s support,” the author, Alina Sandor, concludes. “We may be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.”

Those who were self-employed when the first lockdown came into force a year ago were three times more likely to stop working altogether, compared with those on permanent contracts, the report, published at the end of last month, says.

In total, about 4.4 million workers — about 13 per cent of the total workforce in the UK — were exposed to the disproportionate effects of the pandemic by being in low-earning self-employed or insecure work.

Ms Sandor’s research found that, even when controlling for factors such as age or gender, and when comparing those working in the same sector, being on temporary or insecure contracts noticeably increased the risk of being placed on furlough, having hours reduced, or being made redundant.

“People on zero-hours or temporary contracts were four times more likely to lose their job, and self-employed people were three times more likely to stop working compared to people on permanent contracts,” her report states.

“The lowest-paid workers and part-time workers were twice as likely to lose their jobs compared to the highest paid.”

Unlike previous recessions, the lockdowns last year concentrated the economic and health risks in certain sectors of the economy which could not protect livelihoods as easily as others. For instance, retail workers could not as easily be sent home to work, or furloughed, as many white-collar office workers.

Those sectors most affected by the pandemic also tended to have more workers on low wages and a higher incidence of in-work poverty as a result.

One conclusion that Ms Sandor draws is that the Government should have worked harder to create Covid interventions targeted at those most at risk. “The job-support schemes were never going to save every job, but this analysis shows it’s the workers most exposed to insecurity and most at risk of poverty that fell through the gaps,” she concludes.

The pandemic recession also highlighted long-term structural inequalities in the UK labour market, which created weaknesses for Covid to attack. “More people having good quality, secure jobs would have increased the effectiveness of the job-retention scheme and blunted some of the pandemic’s effects,” and would have saved the Government money in its emergency response, the report says.

In last month’s Budget, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a six-month extension to the Universal Credit uplift of £20 a week, in an effort to protect “the lowest-paid and most vulnerable” (News, 5 March).

While this was welcomed by some campaigners, the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, convener of the Bishops in the House of Lords, said that it was a missed opportunity to help the poorest, who relied on Universal Credit, by making the £20 uplift permanent.

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