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Workers in insecure jobs twice as likely to die of Covid, TUC research finds

Richard Partington Economics correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/the Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/the Guardian

Workers on zero-hours contracts and other insecure jobs are twice as likely to have died of Covid-19 as those in other professions, according to a report revealing stark inequalities in the workplace.

The research from the Trades Union Congress in England and Wales showed those on the frontline of the pandemic, such as care workers, nurses and delivery drivers, were at a higher risk of death. It said many of these key workers were in insecure work, such as zero-hours contracts and agency employment, landing them with a “triple whammy” of no sick pay, fewer rights and endemic low pay, while having to shoulder more risk of infection.

According to analysis of official figures by the trade union umbrella group, Covid-19 mortality rates among male workers in insecure jobs was 51 per 100,000 people aged 20-64, compared with 24 out of 100,000 in more secure work. For female staff the rate was 25 per 100,000, compared with 13 per 100,000 in higher-paying secure work.

Insecure jobs were defined using occupations with a higher proportion of workers employed on contracts that did not guarantee regular hours or income, or low-paid self-employment.

According to the TUC’s analysis, sectors such as care, leisure, and occupations such as labouring, factory and warehouse work have the highest rates of insecure work, compared with managerial, professional and administrative roles, which have some of the lowest.

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Official figures have previously indicated that men working as machine operatives, restaurant managers, chefs, taxi drivers, nursing assistants, local government administrators, nurses and bus drivers all had higher Covid-19 mortality rates.

Insecure workers account for one in nine of the total workforce, with women, disabled people and BAME workers more likely to be in precarious roles.

The TUC said the figures were stark, and called for more research to understand the links between precarious work and infection and death. It said the pandemic needed to be a turning point so that everyone could enjoy dignity in employment.

The union body said the lack of proper sick pay was forcing those in insecure jobs to choose between protecting their lives and putting food on the table. The UK has one of the lowest rates of sick pay in Europe and nearly 2 million workers, including many in insecure work, do not earn enough to qualify for it.

Polling by Britain Thinks on behalf of the union group found that 67% of insecure workers said they had received no pay when off sick, compared with 7% of those in secure employment.

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As Covid restrictions are gradually relaxed this spring, the TUC said the UK’s lack of proper sick pay was failing those in insecure work and undermining the prospect of a safe return to work. It called on ministers to raise statutory sick pay in line with the real living wage, a voluntary minimum pay rate set at £9.50 an hour and £10.85 in London, saying this would stop insecure workers suffering hardship when needing to self-isolate.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said the government had failed to bring forward an employment bill promised in 2019 to bolster workers’ rights and legal protections. She said urgent action was required to tackle insecure employment practices and support low-paid workers.

“Lots of them are the key workers we all applauded – like social care workers, delivery drivers and coronavirus testing staff. This must be a turning point,” she said. “If people can’t observe self-isolation when they need to, the virus could rebound. No one should have to choose between doing the right thing and putting food on the table.”