In the UK, a Two-Tier System is for Life, Not Just for COVID.
As details of the Prime Minister’s garden party and rumours of his resignation rage across headlines and social media, it’s important to remember that the fundamental issue goes far beyond the pandemic. In the UK, a two-tier system is for life, not just for COVID.
It is of course true that honesty from our public representatives is of utmost importance. After all, how can a democracy function if the public cannot trust its government?. The revulsion stirred by yet another example of ‘one rule for them, another for us’ is correct and justified. In fact, it is the sign of a healthy democracy, one in which the public can hold their representatives to account.
Yet, it is important that we do not make the mistake of allowing this to be characterised either as an anomaly, or an innate trait of Boris Johnson. The acceptance of two-tier systems are ingrained in Johnson’s party (the political one - not the work event), embedded in our economy and enshrined in our laws. At its heart, this is an issue of class.
While most businesses tender for government contracts, those with friends in the Tory Party are fast tracked. While most workers pay their taxes, those with the right lawyers avoid them. When small businesses go bankrupt they are left to fend for themselves, yet investment banks get bailed out by the government.
But this two-tier system is far more pervasive than these examples suggest. It impacts the everyday lives of millions of people.
Most workers in the UK enjoy a range of protections that have been won by the trade union movement over the last century and subsequently enshrined into law. Minimum wage, holiday and sick pay, parental leave, rest breaks and protection from unfair dismissal are all expected by workers and considered hallmarks of a ‘developed economy’. However, for the bogus or forced self-employed, none of these exist. Limb (b) workers, or dependent contractors, are entitled to the minimum wage, paid leave and rest breaks, but not not sick pay or parental leave and can be sacked without notice. Workers on zero-hours contracts are technically protected against unfair dismissal, but when your boss doesn't have to sack you, they can simply take you off the rota instead, ensuring you don’t have any hours. Ultimately, this protection is practically worthless.
The TUC estimates that almost 4 million people - over 10% of the UK workforce - are on insecure contracts of some kind. The government itself employed around 20,000 people on zero-hour contracts last year. Invariably it is working class jobs, women and people of colour that are disproportionately forced into these jobs. But even that is changing, with the practices normalised in the gig economy spreading rapidly to the care sector, academia and journalism.
That one set of people can behave in one way, enjoying reward and impunity, whilst another struggles through insecurity is not an aberration, it is the status quo. Our laws allow it to happen, our economy encourages it and our government refuses to tackle it.
These two economies were described in detail in CLASS’s report, Work in 2021, and further research will be published early this year, describing the exact mechanisms and impacts of vastly unequal treatment seen by different parts of our society.
One hopeful finding of both of these reports, however, is that there is another form of protection available: organising. The pandemic has exposed our two-tier society in a harsh light, but it has inspired a new wave of organising. The sustained organising of minicab and delivery drivers has exposed the behaviour of exploitative companies and is forcing them to change tack. We have seen a series of cleaners winning their right to be treated equally to the rest of their organisation's employees, and the hospitality sector continues to grow in its organisation against the precarity entrenched in the industry. Public outrage, amplified by a media who’s decided his time is up, may well mean the end of Johnson’s prime ministership. In the meantime, we must continue to organise through worker power and trade unions; it is the only option if we are to have a truly fair society.