Last week our look back on 2020 reflected on Public Health and the COVID-19 pandemic, this article considers 2020 in terms of the equality agenda.
Although, the constant refrain from the Government has been that we are all in this pandemic together and all have a part to play to get out of it, it is clear that this pandemic has not hit all members of society equally.
In many ways the pandemic has exposed the enduring inequalities in UK society. The poorer sections of our society have been more exposed to the worst effects of the virus than more affluent people.
Blue collar and less well- paid employees are more likely to have been in jobs where they have had to continue to attend their workplaces during the pandemic, exposing themselves more to the virus. Their white collar and professional/managerial counterparts have been more likely to have been working from home.
Additionally, the less well-paid members of the workforce, who may live in a constant state of financial instability, have been less able to afford to self-isolate on statutory sick pay, compared to their white- collar compatriots, who may have been able to access occupational sick-pay and may already have been on a sound financial footing.
An irony of the pandemic was the way that society began to reappraise the value of jobs in our society. During 2020, post workers, supermarket workers, delivery van drivers, and refuge collection employees were not considered key workers, but kept a largely home-bound community going.
Health and social care and other public service employees, who had endured pay freezes for so long, were suddenly being clapped by the public every Thursday night.
Will 2020 lead to a permanent reappraisal of key jobs in our society and the value assigned to them? This may be unlikely. The other side of the pandemic, the Government will eventually turn its attention to how to pay for the pandemic and it is very likely public sector costs and wages will be squeezed again.
The “levelling up” agenda and the “Building Back Better” agenda is unlikely to change the value the labour marketplace on jobs, and the new found flexibility of home and remote working, which has been enjoyed by most of the professional/managerial employees, cannot be extended to the manual workers.
In 2020, the UK was beginning to experience an hourglass labour market with the middle being hollowed out by the deployment of new technologies. COVID-19 is likely to have solidified and widened the gap between the professional/managerial occupations at the top of the hourglass and the manual employees at the bottom.
This widened gap will not only encompass conditions and flexibilities, but also pay. In the 1980s CEOs in Britain earned 20 times average worker salaries. By 2020, it was 120 times. This trend is very unlikely to change and the pay gap between the top half of the employment market and the bottom half is only likely to increase in 2021. Any policy decisions taken post-Brexit to reduce labour protections/employment rights is only likely to exacerbate this divide further.
Other inequalities were exposed in 2020. The shocking treatment and death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the US ignited the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK. This has put the subject of racial inequality centre stage. The statistics are irrefutable when it comes to racial inequality in terms of employment, education, the operation of the criminal justice system and sadly the list goes on.
Demonstrations and public figures such as our football players kept the spotlight on this issue throughout 2020. Will this movement likely to lead to significant changes in 2021? Racial inequality has been enduring and many of the issues fuelling it are systemic.
There would have to be sustained political will to take the actions necessary to fundamentally address racial inequality in the UK and with everything else that will be on the political agenda in post-pandemic and post-Brexit Britain it is difficult to see this being in place.
The final subject to consider is gender equality. 2020 saw much of the burden of the pandemic being carried by women. Women were more likely to be in zero hours or part-time work and working in sectors, which were more vulnerable to the economic shock of COVID-19. They already carried the overwhelming burden of caring responsibilities, but this was exacerbated by the pandemic. Home schooling responsibilities being one example. Additionally, in 2020 the Government decided to suspend gender pay gap reporting.
Will this gender inequality reduce in 2021? The general changes described in the employment market above and any further economic shocks from COVID-19 or Brexit are likely to fall heavily on female employment and wage levels. Any post-Brexit agenda to reduce workers’ rights or to get rid of the burden of bureaucracy, which some politicians see gender pay gap reporting as being, will likely worsen the position for women. Again, unless there is sustained political pressure to address the issue of gender equality, little is likely to change.
What does all of this mean for employers and employment in 2021? It is highly likely that both Government and employer focus, after the worst of the pandemic is contained through vaccination, is likely to be on rebuilding the economy and economic activity.
It is unlikely in this environment that employers will be under new, stringent legislative pressure to address excessive earnings, earning inequalities, or gender or racial inequality issues. That said, it is still highly likely that once the economy recovers, employers are likely to face talent shortages and stiff competition for sought after talent.
The talent available in the labour market will be diverse and it is likely to be those employers which embrace the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda, that will be those most likely to attract that scarce talent.
My forecast is that this change is likely to be driven at the micro rather than the macro level for some years to come. There will be progressive organisations, which will constantly raise the bar on the equality agenda and other employers will follow in their wake.
The experience of 2020 has already caused many progressive employers to announce that they will support flexi- or permanent remote working and such a stance is highly likely to give them competitive advantage in the talent marketplace.
Similarly, there are progressive firms which have signalled their support for the Black Lives Matter agenda and for gender equality. The route to change in the employment market will then be through progressive firms and discerning, diverse talent, selecting only those organisations which genuinely embrace the EDI agenda.
What should employers do?
If you need any assistance with this agenda within your own organisation, please do not hesitate to contact either our Employment Law team, or our Human Resource Consultancy, Forbury People.
Prefer to Listen? Then check out our Mini Series Podcast on Employment & HR in 2020:The Equality Agenda here.