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Rishi Sunak must deliver a workers’ budget to ensure a post-Covid recovery

Frances O'Grady
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA</span>
Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

We all hope the pandemic is receding. But what it leaves behind is the prospect of mass unemployment and whole industries fighting for survival. At next week’s budget, working people across the UK need the chancellor to set out a new vision of good jobs for everyone.

Related: 'Deafening silence': UK government blasted over delays to employment reforms

Top of Rishi Sunak’s to-do list must be to extend furlough and support for self-employed people until at least the end of the year. This would give families financial certainty and help employers get back on their feet. An exit from the pandemic will only be sustained if everyone sticks to the self-isolation rules – so he must raise statutory sick pay, too. And Sunak must reverse his inexcusable decision to reward dedicated public sector key workers by freezing their pay.

But the budget is also time for Sunak to look beyond the immediate demands of funding the pandemic response.

Covid-19 has shone a light on the insecurity and inequality rife in our labour market. That is why the TUC believes that we must have a workers’ budget next week. And the chancellor should be judged both on whether he saves existing jobs and whether he helps to create millions of good new ones.

The job retention scheme is currently supporting the livelihoods of five million people, but the coronavirus crisis is still causing job losses across the country. Meanwhile, the government’s “stop-go” approach to furlough has triggered unnecessary redundancies.

Instead of getting on with increasing universal credit, as we have called for, ministers continue to dither over whether to keep the £20 weekly uplift. All the while, unemployment is running at around than 5% in five regions – the North East, Yorkshire & Humber, East Midlands, West Midlands and London. Many of the areas hardest hit have already been at the sharp end of industrial decline and government cuts of the last 10 years.

These regions were once powerhouses of industry, offering good apprenticeships leading to secure jobs that you could build a life on. Today, too many of those jobs have been replaced with insecure, low-paid, short-term work. Over the last decade, the government has overseen austerity and the rapid growth of precarious work. And while the government has adopted the language of “build back better” in its pitch to working people, there is precious little action accompanying it.

The prime minister’s much-trumpeted “green industrial revolution” is in tatters, after it emerged the funding for the green homes grant, which is supposed to help make domestic housing in England more environmentally friendly, is set to be cut by hundreds of millions of pounds.

Communities across the country deserve better. Every family deserves to know there are decent jobs available, close to home. A powerful green stimulus package would revitalise communities that have lost traditional industries, transform firms and provide better opportunities. In the process, a green jobs drive could stop mass unemployment, power our economic recovery and help tackle the climate crisis.

The government must be more ambitious: the green jobs taskforce, with its promise of two million jobs by 2030, is only a first step.

Green jobs must be skilled jobs, on decent contracts and fair pay. In June, the TUC set out a plan to create 1.24m jobs in the green infrastructure of the future over the next two years. These jobs would build efficient homes, install faster broadband and modern transport links, and bring green technology forward.

This plan would overwhelmingly benefit the north and the Midlands – areas where industrial decline has been felt most. If the TUC’s plans were implemented, these areas could be home to a quarter of a million new jobs within two years – plus thousands more in the supply chain.

Alongside good green jobs, ministers must urgently bring the public sector back to full strength. Over the last decade, rounds of redundancies and high levels of vacancies have become the norm in our overstretched and underfunded public services.

The impact of that was clear: we were ill-prepared for a pandemic. It was public sector staff who kept the country going – at huge cost to themselves. We owe it to all the key workers in our cherished public services to learn lessons from this crisis, and fund and staff the public sector properly.

Public sector jobs are decent skilled jobs. From town to town and region to region, the availability of skilled, high-quality jobs varies dramatically. This is both a symptom and a cause of regional inequality.

Filling the 600,000 gaps and vacancies in the public sector will start to undo the damage of austerity and meet the challenges of the future, not least the climate crisis and our ageing society. It is also a quick way to cut unemployment, level up between regions and help our communities thrive.

Behind any programme for jobs must be an industrial strategy that puts decent work at its heart. That means setting up a national recovery council, where unions, business and government work together on the economic recovery. Not all wisdom lies in Westminster, so we need regional recovery councils along similar lines. That way we can make sure investment works for local people, backed by a national infrastructure bank.

The government must also invest in skills and training – starting with reversing the thoughtless decision to scrap the union learning fund.

These ideas provide a blueprint to genuinely level up regions around the country. Ministers should adopt it wholesale.

This week’s labour market figures were a warning sign. Young people accounted for six in 10 of the jobs lost over the last year. We cannot afford another generation scarred by mass unemployment.

On Wednesday, the chancellor has an opportunity to rebuild our economy for the better. We hope he chooses good green jobs, world-class public services and fair wages.

  • Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the TUC