Improving conditions for key workers

Professor Miguel Martinez Lucio, Professor of International HRM and Comparative Industrial Relations, discusses the benefits of improving conditions for key workers post-COVID-19.

Key workers have been hailed as the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. But many of these workers - cleaners, delivery drivers, and providers of other essential services - have long suffered from uncertain working conditions. 

COVID-19 has shone a light on the conditions of workers in these areas and now is the time for their voice to be heard, both for their benefit, and for the infrastructure of the economy. 

Recorded in August 2020


Lecture transcript

The purpose of this recording is to look at questions of key workers and how key workers have been valued, or have not been valued, as a consequence of their contribution to dealing with the current pandemic.

The first set of ideas comes from work with Jo McBride at the University of Durham, where we looked at cleaners, especially in the public sector, prior to the pandemic. And we focused on the way in which they were dealing with austerity, cutbacks in resources, their work was not being appreciated, there was the irony that they had to use their discretion much more, that they had to kind of make quick decisions at a time when they felt stigmatised and undervalued.

And in the case, in some cases for example, they would have to deal with questions of safety and violence when working out in the public. These kinds of issues have been around for a long time and to a certain extent, what the current pandemic has done is highlight these issues much more and throw much more out in the open, the fact that these key workers, for example, in thiscase the cleaners, were not being valued.

And it was time to look at their critical role in terms of hygiene and health and safety. And this was a Policy at Manchester document. Then there is a document which Gail Hebson and myself have worked on, which represents the research of the Work and Equalities Institute, various other projects, the director being Jill Rubery, in terms of the WEI, which tried to talk about key workers in a broader sense and their role in the economy.

There's been a lot of applause for NHS workers. There's been a lot of, kind of, symbolic support, but amongst many work and employment academics, what we begin to realise, is that the real issue is that these workers have to be rewarded, that their, the systems of work employment are seeing greater work intensification, higher levels of vacancies because people don't necessarily want to do these types of jobs, especially in the health sector.

And again going back to some of the issues I raised earlier, we've seen a kind of downgrading, in terms of their skills or a lack of appreciation in the way in which they work. It's not clear how they're valued. It's not clear how they can be developing effective career paths, according to research of various colleagues.

And there's kind of a lack of attention to training and development, which is now very, very important. So the combination of these factors means that whilst the spotlight has shone on the role of key workers, their particular kind of issues, their working conditions remain poor, they remain fragmented.

In the case of the private sector, we see the presence of short-term or zero-hour contracts, and there's a massive debate around the abuse of the self-employed status. Which, as a consequence of this, we see many in logistics, drivers, deliverers and so forth, work in conditions where they're responsible for their health and safety, there aren't broader employer responsibilities.

And finally, the issue for us is that the voice of these workers, of these key workers, especially those in the private sector, be the private care sector or private sector - aspects like logistics and delivery. The voice has not been kind of developed.

There's a lack of collective rights, trade unionism has been undermined, and as a consequence, they are unable to raise significant issues with regards to the conditions of their work.

And why is it important to all of us? Because it's important for us, because working conditions should be supported and enhanced. But also, it has an effect on the infrastructure of the economy, the manner in which the basic foundations of the economy become fragmented, and the key workers cannot always deliver the kind of benefits and work and outputs that are essential for dealing with a pandemic.