Unions are trying to give people advice and help them organise. But there are millions on low pay and zero hours, on gig economy jobs; people facing job losses regardless of government support which is left to employer discretion. And there are untold numbers of hard-up employees not sure what their position is at all, and who’ll find a 20% pay cut, possibly not paid till the end of April, very hard indeed.
And all of these people know – or are rapidly discovering – that our benefits system is now a miserable, punitive, conditional place. (I found this out for myself when I was dependent on it a few years ago.)
If you rent, it won’t fully cover your rent in 7 out of 10 cases. If you’ve not had a stable work history and sufficient national insurance contributions, you’ve got to rely on a partner or use up your savings, (including money you might have sensibly put aside for your tax bill). If you’re on low pay, you won’t get much of a top up. And if you’re a migrant without documentation or without permanent leave to remain, you may struggle to access either benefits or free healthcare right now. Even workers from the EU and European Economic Area face an uphill struggle, beset with frequent errors, to prove their ‘habitual residence’ entitlement to claim benefits.
All this must urgently change. Our long-shredded safety net weakens everyone’s ability to stay safe – and to keep others safe too. As a union activist, I used to argue for a strong safety net because, without it, workers don’t dare to stand up to employers when they’re endangering people. We need this safety net now more than ever.
Did you really wake up this morning thinking “hooray, now I can do nothing but watch TV for months, the kids too”? Okay, maybe a little bit. (I’m looking forward to catching up on Doctor Who myself.) But full time? The government seems to think so. Meanwhile, absurdly, at time of writing, the DWP appears to still be asking people to demonstrate that they are job seeking for 35 hours a week in order to claim benefits.
As this crisis has unfolded, everyone I know, even those worried about their own health and finances, is trying to think about how to help each other, with everything from grocery runs to free online concerts to cheer each other up. The runs on the supermarket are down to “just in time” supply chains, not people’s selfishness. Much of the well-publicised failures to keep distance are the result of unclear advice, people having to work, overcrowded housing and the fact that so much public space is given to traffic, not people. Most people I’ve seen in recent days were doing their best: a weird dance of distancing. Everyone I know is reaching out to others, to the elderly, the mentally and physically vulnerable, the isolated, trying to figure out how they can help each other best. Whether it be getting a job in a supermarket, coming back into the NHS, or supporting neighbours informally through mutual aid.
People need to be able to make these choices. We need to resist the message that we’re all ‘selfish’ and our choices must be controlled on pain of penury. Actually, we’ve needed to resist this for a long time.
We need solutions that don’t just store up debt for businesses and individuals, particularly renters and people on low incomes. Decades of government policy have punched holes in the safety net. We need to tie them up immediately – and make sure that the net now catches us all. Everyone, without exception, must have a liveable income to sustain them in the difficult months ahead.
I’ve got food in the cupboards. Not everyone does.
Those on poor and modest incomes are least likely to have the kind of personal resources, good jobs that can be done remotely, and understanding bosses that will help them weather this crisis. They must be the priority.
That’s why openDemocracy has launched a campaign today demanding the government guarantees everyone a liveable income during this crisis – without exception.
We have systems in place that could make this happen overnight – and more and more politicians and businesses are thinking along similar lines. Now we need to show a huge wave of public support. To show that even at this time when many of us are feeling lonely and frightened, we can stand in solidarity with each other, and demand that no-one is forgotten.
Please join us, sign the campaign below and share it widely. Thank you.Print