The leader of the UK’s six million trade union members is demanding an extension of the coronavirus furlough scheme to prevent “a tsunami of job losses”.
In a direct appeal to Chancellor Rishi Sunak, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady says the pandemic won’t end in October, so neither should government support for jobs.
She is pledging to work with Mr Sunak, as unions did in setting up the furlough scheme, to stop “the catastrophe of mass unemployment” and is urging him: “Don’t walk away.”
Ms O’Grady’s plea comes in her keynote speech at a two-day COVID-secure TUC conference in London, with a small invited group in Congress House and union members across Britain joining online.
On day two, Sir Keir Starmer will give his first speech as Labour leader to the TUC Congress, in person at Congress House and followed by a Q&A with Ms O’Grady and frontline workers.
The TUC says its conference this year will focus on the impact of coronavirus and what action is needed to protect jobs and livelihoods in the weeks and months ahead.
Ms O’Grady is also hitting out at claims that the chancellor is poised to scrap the rise in the minimum wage from £8.72 to £9.21 due next April because he can’t afford it after coronavirus.
In her speech, the TUC leader will say: “Unions pushed for the jobs retention scheme. Millions of livelihoods were saved – both employees and the self-employed.
“From this Thursday it will be just 45 days before the JRS ends. That’s the notice period that companies have to give if they intend to make mass redundancies.
“If the government doesn’t act we face a tsunami of job losses. So my message to the chancellor is this:
“We worked together once before. We are ready to work with you again – if you are serious about stopping the catastrophe of mass unemployment. Rishi Sunak: stand by working families – don’t walk away.”
Responding to the TUC leader’s call, a government spokesman said: “Supporting jobs is an absolute priority which is why we’ve set out a comprehensive plan for jobs to protect, create and support jobs across the UK by providing significant, targeted support where it is needed the most.
“We are continuing to support livelihoods and incomes through our £2bn Kickstart scheme, creating incentives for training and apprenticeships, a £1,000 retention bonus for businesses that can bring furloughed employees back to work, and doubling the number of frontline work coaches to help people find work.
“We are also supporting and protecting jobs in the tourism and hospitality sectors through our VAT cut and last month’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.”
In her speech, Ms O’Grady will talk of a need to keep people in work and highlight a TUC plan to build on the Jobs Retention Scheme, including bringing people back to work on shorter hours.
“The pandemic isn’t scheduled to end in October so neither should state support for jobs,” she will say.
“It’s so much better to keep people working, paying their taxes, spending and helping to rebuild the economy.
“The price of unemployment is always too high. And it’s always paid by ordinary working families. That’s why we are proposing a new job protection and skills deal – a three-way bargain.
“Employers must bring people back, starting on shorter hours. During downtime workers must take part in training and up-skilling.
“And for the time they are not working, the state will subsidise wages, on condition that employers continue to pay at least 80% of the normal rate.”
She will add: “When the crisis began, the chancellor said he would do ‘whatever it takes’. He must keep that promise.
“Some will ask can the country afford to do it? The answer is – we can’t afford not to.”
Demanding the national living wage rise goes ahead as planned, Ms O’Grady will also say: “Coronavirus is no leveller. It has exposed huge inequality in modern Britain.
“Hard work should pay for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of job you do. Yet many of those who kept this country going through the crisis don’t get the respect they deserve.
“They do valuable, skilled work. But they are short changed.
“The minimum wage – the wage of two million key workers – must rise as planned. Ministers: don’t punch down.
“Key workers have shown courage and dedication. Now it’s time for government and employers to repay that debt by fixing their contracts, raising their pay and giving people dignity at work.”