The pandemic has exposed a web of inequalities across our society and economy. These inequalities demonstrate the urgent need for an industrial strategy that puts workers at its heart.
We need an agenda that not only ‘levels up’ the struggling parts of our country, but one that also ensures the millions of workers who have been left behind for years, and who are now facing the brunt of the COVID-19 recession, are given the support they deserve.
Many of the problems these workers are facing have been around for years. But COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst. Whether or not you could access the Government’s income support schemes, were a key worker, or were able to work from home, has meant a stark divide in experiences of the crisis. But these differences in how we value work are not new. Indeed, these divides are ones that have been developing across our country for years. These inequalities were exposed by the crisis, but they will only get worse if we do not act now.
If we do act quickly and comprehensively, we can not only provide solutions to these inequalities, but build a balanced, sustainable, innovative economy fit for the 21st Century. Important work on this is being done. Britain is leading the way in green energy and is racing toward our goal of Carbon Zero by 2050. The accompanying well paying, secure jobs should provide a model for the future. As it stands, the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is yet to be demonstrated and our industrial strategy lacks both ambition and scope. Its greatest failing is that it forgets our greatest asset: the British people. If we ensure workers are at the heart of a revitalised industrial strategy, then we can build an economy and society stronger than the one that entered the crisis.
To do this we need to prioritise three key areas. First, we need a coordinated push by businesses and government to provide the support and training that workers need to thrive. If we want a high skilled, high earning economy, we need to provide the education and environment that will make it a reality.
Secondly, we must ensure that workers who already contribute a huge amount to our society are valued and given the recognition they deserve. Finally, we need a new era of social partnerships which involves workers, unions, employers, and government. By working together to guarantee good conditions and recognition we can create an economy that stops leaving vast sections of our society behind and ensure the ambitions of workers are central to our solutions,
Britain faced a skills crisis before the pandemic, this crisis is even more urgent now. Tackling it requires coordination between Government and business to prioritise the most pressing areas for retraining. However, we must also encourage government and businesses to engage with workers to find out what they believe will help in their current roles and their careers long-term. It is by working together that we can best identify and fill the current and emerging skills gaps across the country. It is only by partnering with workers that we can expect to retool our economy for the globalising, automating, post COVID world.
The pandemic has also demonstrated just how essential our often-neglected key workers are. Many of these jobs were previously dismissively referred to as low skilled. However, their flexibility, courage and compassion have shown that this has always been a false distinction. We cannot have a thriving economy that continues to undervalue the workers which form its foundation. Only a top to bottom rethink on how we reward and value work will we close the cracks that run through our economy. By addressing this, and closing these gaps, we will have a stronger economy and a stronger society.
Finally, the crisis has shown what can be achieved when government, businesses and trade unions work together. From the introduction of the furlough and self-employment schemes, to the guidance on safety at work, the benefits this three-pronged approach are obvious. Rebuilding our economy in a way that works for everyone is a challenge that requires a continued and expanded strategy of social partnership. By bringing businesses and workers together we can generate the new jobs we need whilst ensuring the conditions and rewards every person deserves. At the heart of this must be entrenching the voices of staff and unions at every level of the decision-making process.
The challenges we face now are only going to get harder to tackle if we do not act now. However, they are challenges we can tackle with a revitalised industrial strategy that includes workers. We all have a role to play in building a Britain for the 21st Century. We face a choice as to whether we continue to muddle through with increasing inequality and a fracturing society; or seize the opportunity to rebuild our economy in a way that leaves no one behind. If we are to take the latter route we will emerge from this crisis with a new perspective and mission. One that recognises the importance of working with people, in order to build a country that works for people.
Kate Dearden is Head of Research, Policy and External Relations at Community, and adviser to Roy Rickhuss, member of the Industrial Strategy Council.
A version of this comment piece was first published in The Independent.