Uncertainty over whether self-employed construction workers should continue working on building sites across the U.K. has led to mounting pressure for a decision to be made over what should be considered ‘essential’ work.
Following prime minister Boris Johnston’s decision to put the U.K. on lock down to help curb the spread of COVID-19, there was much confusion within the business community as to what this meant for workers who could not continue to work from home. Over 2.7 million people employed directly or indirectly by the construction industry have been left in a state of limbo, as the vast majority of workers tend to be self-employed or sub-contractors. They have been left confused by the message to stay at home, yet are being told by bosses to turn up to work as normal. Some have even been threatened with loss of pay or total job loss if they do not turn up. With many being paid weekly, this is leaving construction workers fearful to go to work, but completely unable to stop without suffering from severe financial distress.
The official stance from the government following lock down was that construction work could continue, providing sites and employers were able to keep to the guidelines issued by Public Health England. This included being 2 meters apart from any other workers at all times. The trouble with this arrangement was that it was simply not practical or possible on many construction sites. Workers were conducting work which required them to be close together and at break times, the canteen continued to be full, with minimal distance between chairs and tables within the already confined space. Furthermore, images were circulated in the press and on social media which revealed that London’s tube trains, which were running on a reduced service to try and control the numbers using it, were severely overcrowded with a large proportion of passengers comprising construction workers trying to get to work.
Many construction sites have remained open and there have been reports that workers have been told they must come in to work, despite them being concerned about the health risks of continuing to work in a particular location. Also, because the vast majority of construction workers are self-employed, the lack of clarity provided over the support self-employed workers will receive has led many to continue working even though they would prefer to self-isolate. Those that did decide to stay at home are those who have taken the decision to forfeit any further income from their work, and most have only got a couple of weeks worth of savings to survive on before they enter into financial hardship. Many are simply living from week to week, so cannot stop as they have no savings or back up money to rely on.
The government has been clear that key workers and essential businesses must continue throughout the pandemic, but there are now calls to define exactly what type of work should continue and which should be stopped. Medical experts are in agreement that social distancing is one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread, yet this is only partly being adhered to while self-employed workers continue to work out of fear of falling into financial difficulty. Once everyone knows that they will receive some kind of government support, they are far more likely to be willing to stay inside and support the national effort to stop cases of COVID-19 from reaching levels which are unsustainable in hospitals.
Following sustained pressure for clearer answers for the self-employed, on Thursday 26th March the U.K. government unveiled its plans to support self-employed workers, although had issued a prior warning that not everyone will avoid financial hardship during the Coronavirus and that some businesses simply can’t be saved. They revealed that self-employed workers will be able to claim up to 80% of their earnings, averaged over a three year period. This money will be available from June for an initial period of three months after which this will be reviewed and possibly extended. In the interim period, they have been advised to apply for a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan. Whilst this package has been created to help around 95% of self-employed workers, there are some who will fall outside of this bracket. Those include people whose profits exceed £50K per year or those who have not submitted a tax return due to only recently setting up as self-employed. Those individuals have been asked to seek support through the welfare system.
The support provided to both individuals and businesses in light of the Coronavirus outbreak is unprecedented and has been hailed as one of the most generous currently being offered by any country. Whilst there is still some way to go before these measures are working in practice, it has left the vast majority feeling a little more settled financially when faced with several uncertain months ahead. For a limited number of individuals however, it appears that they have still fallen through the cracks.