The pandemic has exposed just how deep inequalities run in society. We must seize this opportunity to re-evaluate and reset equality in work – and HR has a pivotal role to play. Katie Jacobs and Siân Harrington look at how HR leaders can help to create a more inclusive and equal future of work
At the start of the first UK lockdown, way back in March 2020, it became rather fashionable to reflect on how we were ‘all in this together’, all impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. It didn’t take long for the cracks to show. What soon became painfully, obviously, clear was that while we might all be in the same storm, we are in very different boats – and some have sprung a leak. Inequalities weren’t exactly hidden pre-COVID, but the pandemic has exposed just how deep and entrenched they run in society.
It’s not hard to find stark evidence for this. The Institute for Employment Studies recently revealed that the UK’s lowest-paid workers were more than twice as likely to have lost their jobs in the pandemic than higher-paid employees. And research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that the pandemic has hit the lowest paid hardest financially too.
Meanwhile, black and ethnic minority workers are not only a staggering 26 times more likely to have lost their jobs than white employees, according to the TUC, but people from ethnic minority backgrounds are also twice as likely to die from COVID. That’s partly due to being overrepresented in lower paid, frontline jobs: people in some of these roles are more than three times more likely to be killed by the virus.
And then there’s the impact the pandemic has had on young people and women. An LSE study found that young people have been hardest hit by COVID-related job losses, potentially leading to damaging long-term unemployment. Women have been forced back into more traditional caring roles, either working from home while juggling home schooling and caring responsibilities or because many of the hardest hit sectors provide ‘service’ jobs more often filled by women.
“It’s plunged a lot of women in particular into the ranks of the working poor, while the working poor who were already in that category have become poorer,” says Jo Brewis, professor of people and organisations at The Open University Business School and a member of the research cluster Gendered Organisational Practice which sits within the academic centre of excellence REEF (Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures).
“Women are over-represented in sectors like personal care which cannot always be done from home. Some have been able to furlough but that isn’t always economically sufficient. And then the notion that somehow the domestic division of labour has changed dramatically over the last few decades – well, the data just does not bear that out at all. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
In addition, she notes, the pandemic has highlighted how complex and varied experiences of inequality are. More than 30 years after Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor at Columbia and UCLA, coined the term intersectionality as a way of seeing how various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on how some people are subject to a wide range of inequalities.
“For example,” says Brewis, “if you look at data on women employees during the pandemic and the data on employees of colour during the pandemic, you can see that women of colour have been worse off as a result of the intersection of race and gender than either men of colour or other women.”
Meanwhile, if you add in having a disability the picture is even bleaker. A survey by UK disability charity Leonard Cheshire in October 2020 found that 71% of disabled people in employment in March that year were affected by the pandemic through loss of income, being put on furlough or being made redundant. This rose to 84% of those aged 18-24. Moreover, 42% of employers polled said a barrier to hiring disabled workers was the concern that they would not be able to properly support them through the pandemic, while 20% admitted they would be less likely overall to hire someone with a disability. The report said not only were many disabled people clinically at high risk from the virus, but many also worked in sectors hardest hit by the outbreak, including retail and hospitality.
The lowest paid take the highest risks
However, alongside this exposure of inequality has come a recognition of just how essential the services provided by key workers are. Without the carers, the supermarket workers, the refuse collectors and delivery drivers, society would have ground to a halt. As Brewis says: “The pandemic has surfaced our awareness of a wider range of key workers, especially people who work in care homes, who I think were largely invisible to the public beforehand”.
Sharon Benson, HR director at Sunrise Senior Living and Gracewell Healthcare, agrees that the pandemic has changed perceptions of care workers and the social care sector, putting it on a par with the much-loved NHS. “Frontline care workers have finally been acknowledged and praised for the work they do, for their bravery, passion, commitment and selfless acts of kindness as they look after the thousands of vulnerable people in our society,” she says.
Yet unfairness is baked into this system. As Kate Guthrie, CPO of Virgin Money, puts it: “It’s the people who are the lowest paid that have been taking the most personal risks. Why is it the roles that have been so crucial throughout this pandemic are the ones we value the least?”
And while courier Ethan Bradley, an elected rep of the IWGB, the UK's leading union for precarious workers, has also seen a change in attitude towards gig workers like himself – “instead of being ‘unskilled’ workers, the pandemic has shown that such workers are essential for society to function, and to allow people to stay at home” – he notes that such workers are still regularly denied basic rights, such as sick pay and PPE provision.
“What is the point of our being applauded in the streets when the companies we work for pay us poverty wages and treat us as disposable? Being able to work-from-home or shield is not a privilege afforded to the lowest paid workers in our society,” he says.
Indeed, the mixed reaction over the resurrection of the UK’s ‘Clap for Carers’ movement (rebranded ‘Clap for Heroes’) gives some indication of a growing realisation that recognition alone is not enough. As Brewis says: “You can’t eat claps and neither can you use them to pay the rent or household bills. I’m not persuaded by the hero discourse. I don’t think a lot of people in those occupations want to be described as heroes. The heroic discourse almost makes it harder for them to say, actually I feel really unsafe, or I'm really worried about my kids. Yes, these workers are so much more visible. But we haven’t taken anything like enough steps to value them properly and to create a much fairer way of working for them.”
We need a fair work ecosystem
So when we finally come out of this crisis, is it possible to use our experience as a catalyst to redefine what ‘valuable work’ is, and examine how it should be rewarded?
Neil Morrison, HR director at utilities provider Severn Trent, believes this issue is about more than just pay. “It’s about societal value,” he says. “How do we look after these [essential workers]? We need to build a world of work that is based on them and their needs. What is a fair deal for those people? How do we create a society that recognises the value they provide for us?”
The “fair work ecosystem” he envisages goes beyond pay, encompassing security of employment (Morrison references the recommendations made in 2017’s Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, aka the ‘Good Work Plan), autonomy and freedom within work, pensions and retirement plans, and increased regionalisation of employment (rather than people having to travel or move to find work).
At Sunrise, the HR team has changed several policies and introduced new rewards and benefits, in recognition of just how tough it has been to work in care during COVID. Pay has increased to £9.10 an hour minimum, the sick pay policy has moved from statutory sick pay to full sick pay and staff in homes are being provided with free hot meals. Benson says she is “constantly” thinking about how to evolve reward strategies to better recognise frontline staff. “This won’t just apply to financial rewards but in all other areas too,” she says. “We will be looking at the free meals on shift and whether we can make it a more permanent offering, [as well as how we can enhance] transport allowances.”
While it’s encouraging to hear from responsible employers, it cannot be overlooked that many living in poverty in the UK are the working poor, in precarious and low paid employment, often working more than one job and relying on food banks and Universal Credit to top up their income. “We typically think of poverty as something that happens to people not in work but this is an issue that’s affecting our workforce,” says Norman Pickavance, an independent advisor and founder of the Financial Inclusion Alliance. “You can’t have a fair society if you don’t have fair jobs. We continue to operate in a society where the minimum wage is insufficient to support a working family.”
While this is evidently a systemic issue requiring a response at the very highest levels (Pickavance advocates a profound rethink of the UK’s economic strategy, investing in technology and “restoring the dignity of working people”), there are steps organisations can take to reset fairness. Pickavance recommends paying a living wage and providing “living hours”, examining whether the “push for agility has gone too far” through the use of zero-hours contracts, for example, and providing access to low-cost credit and debt management services. Stability is key: “People feel out of control when they don’t know how much money is coming in every month, and 50% of all workplace absences are caused by financial stress.”
To support all this, he believes it would be “beneficial for businesses to think more constructively about the future of trade unions”, as well as encouraging HR professionals to consider models like employee ownership. After several years of decline, union membership appears to be growing again, according to government data, boosted by more women signing up and their increased political capital during the pandemic. IWGB’s membership has surged by 40% since COVID struck. “For frontline workers marginalised by society and abandoned by government during this crisis, unions have stepped up to provide support and representation,” says Bradley.
Post-COVID must be more, not less, inclusive
Beyond redefining the value of low paid roles, the HR profession and business more broadly also need to take steps now to ensure post-COVID workplaces are more genuinely inclusive, not less so. The stats highlighted earlier show just how real the risk is of the diversity and inclusion agenda slipping backwards. However, while acknowledging that women are bearing the brunt of home schooling and that black, Asian and ethnic minority workers are more exposed in frontline roles, diversity and inclusion (D&I) expert Charlotte Sweeney is cautiously optimistic about the potential for improved inclusion in the long-term.
“I was initially nervous that D&I would fall off the agenda,” she says. “However, given the combination of COVID and the death of George Floyd, I see that the D&I agenda has increased in prominence. Many more companies are saying it’s important to them.” But, she caveats: “Let’s see how that translates into meaningful actions.”
Julie Humphreys, head of D&I at publisher Reach PLC, recognises a clear link between wellbeing and inclusion, and wants to see a more holistic approach to both post-COVID. “Mental health is an increasing worry; I am concerned the UK is heading for a real spike in people taking their own life,” she says. She adds that HR professionals need to have the potential impact of long COVID, where people suffer debilitating symptoms for months, if not longer, after becoming infected, on the radar: “There are so many implications, including for D&I…is the Equality Act fit for this new development in disability?”
She also wants to see measurement and reporting come back on the agenda (gender pay gap reporting was controversially scrapped in 2020 thanks to the pressures of the pandemic), with ethnicity pay gap reporting coming into force, and social mobility reporting included in legislation too.
While vaccines offer light at the end of the tunnel, we likely still have many dark days ahead. But this time could be used to radically and genuinely rethink what work could look like for those groups who have suffered the most.
And there is precedence for HR. Brewis says her experience researching menopause and work demonstrates the active role in resetting inequality that HR leaders can play if they listen to employees in their own organisations as well as taking inspiration from other employers: “What I've seen time and again is that there's a viral thing that happens in this space. First movers bring in some form of supportive intervention, not necessarily a policy. Then you begin to see a ripple effect where other employers look at what they're doing. I don't really care what their motivations are, if it’s all some form of CSR washing or just a way to make them look good to their customers and employees or to attract new talent. The fact they are doing something to address the issue is good enough and the viral effects can be really quite extraordinary.”
Sweeney urges the people profession to involve everyone in discussions about what the future of work can and should look like.
“Make sure you really do listen to the usually unheard voices,” she says. “Part of this should be renewing the psychological contract with work. Resist the temptation to ‘get back to normal’. We can create great change in times of disruption – take this opportunity with both hands to really push your companies to be more inclusive.”
This feature is part of the Great Work Reset series produced by The People Space in partnership with The Open University Business School
What is the point of our being applauded in the streets when the companies we work for pay us poverty wages and treat us as disposable? Being able to work-from-home or shield is not a privilege afforded to the lowest paid workers in our society