Ed Cross doesn’t have an underlying health problem. But – like one in 10 of the population who work in the ‘gig economy’ – he is living in fear of the coronavirus.
Ed, 53, is a delivery driver in Whitby for a well-known company, but like all his colleagues he is classed as self-employed. So, should he need to self-isolate for 14 days, stay at home with a sick family member, or become sick with COVID-19, he will get no pay.
To make matters worse, the Government’s response is summed up in two words – Universal Credit . A failed benefit with a notorious five-week wait for help.
“In all the years I’ve done this job, I have never had a day off sick, let alone self-isolated,” Ed says. “Of course, I’ve been ill, but when you are self-employed you have to go to work with a flu or a cold, because otherwise you lose a day’s earnings.”
Tracey Sheppard, 41, who lives in Essex, has four cleaning jobs and says she just won’t be able to afford to self-isolate. “I would choose to work over self-isolating,” she admits. “Having just one day off for a hospital appointment can have a negative impact. The Government needs to do more to protect people who are self-employed. Many of us don’t get sick or holiday pay. If we need to self-isolate, what are people meant to do?”
The advent of the coronavirus could be the moment the jig is up for the gig economy. We know that for millions it is already not working, to ignore a bitter pun.
Multibillion-pound companies run on the fact that employees work sick and sometimes dying, often on unpaid overtime and with sick children left at home with a neighbour. Gig workers are dropped like a stone when they are sick or absent.
The profits have kept piling up, and the precarious economy has doubled in three years to include 4.7 million workers in the UK. But COVID-19 is revealing the cracks in a flawed system, not just here but across the globalised world, where the gig economy has itself spread like a virus.
Meanwhile, coronavirus has confirmed what health workers and unions have been saying for years – that outsourcing to gig companies has no place in our National Health Service. Lack of sick pay could now hasten the spread of a serious outbreak.
Labour MP Justin Madders has seen his two portfolios – as Shadow Minister for Health and Shadow Minister for Employment – join up. “The coronavirus outbreak has exposed the real fragility that is the daily reality for millions of people in our economy,” he says. “People cannot afford to be ill because they have no safety net due to the exploitative business models that have proliferated in recent years.
“We need to fundamentally change the way the world of work operates so that people have basic rights and protections enshrined as an absolute minimum.”
Nowhere is this more of an issue than for outsourced NHS staff employed on gig contracts – including porters, cleaners, security guards and other vital workers.
Yesterday, a former hospital caterer, Sarah, told us most staff she worked with went to work ill, despite worrying about the vulnerability of patients.
“Even going to work with a cold can affect people around us, especially in hospital,” she says. “You get asked by patients, ‘why did you come to work if you have a cold?’. The simple answer is, if we don’t come to work, we don’t get paid. The landlord is not going to understand, they just want their rent.
“Working around patients you easily get ill or catch something, but if you need time off, the provider would say, ‘have the time off unpaid’, or you would be shown the door. Most are taking home such low wages as it is.”
It’s no wonder, she says, “patients come to hospital with one thing but can catch other viruses”.
Sally, 53, from Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, works at a care home. “I am worried about the coronavirus,” she says. “There are many vulnerable people there. But I am not sure what I would do if I had to self-isolate. We don’t get sick pay or holiday pay. It is not as if we can work from home.”
The GMB’s national secretary Rehana Azam calls this a “perverse incentive to come into work even if they may be infected”.
Dave Prentis UNISON general secretary says workers should be paid in full. “Workers self-isolating shouldn’t have to take a financial hit for doing the right thing,” he says.
“They should be paid in full, with the Government stepping in to help out struggling smaller employers.”
While the Government washes its hands of gig workers, Ed Cross is at work delivering parcels to around 100 households a day.
He is now carrying antibacterial wipes with him, so he can wipe down the machine used by customers to sign for their deliveries.
“This could break the courier companies because customers are becoming concerned about where their parcels have come from,” he says. “Some customers have refused to sign for their parcels on the machine.
“One customer was coughing and sneezing when I knocked to deliver her parcel. I joked to her about the coronavirus. She told me she had got checked out, but it makes you wonder. Some people will have the virus and still open the door.
“If they self-isolate, people will be at home ordering things online. They don’t understand that we are also humans, they just want their parcels.
“We have to hope people continue to be responsible and not open the door if they are self-isolating.”
We are told the Government has “declared war on coronavirus”.
But by failing to protect them, the Government has just turned the country’s most precarious workers into cannon fodder.
Additional reporting by Maryam Qaiser
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