There have been few good things to come out of COVID-19. We’ve seen a genuine sense of community spirit emerge along with greater respect for blue-collar workers in the front line. In the UK, we’ve seen another less obvious shift: an emerging commitment to the idea that all citizens within a country should enjoy a basic minimum income. While some conservative politicians may hate the idea, the UK has come close to creating a system of Universal Basic Income (UBI). This seems a radical departure from the welfare regimes that we have become accustomed to over the last seven decades. Some may think it smacks of communism. In reality, the idea goes back a long way, and its roots may lie in radical politics and utopian socialism such as Tom Paine’s eighteen century pamphlet The Rights of Man. It has even attracted interest from both the political left and right. Richard Nixon toyed with the notion in the 1970s, and Finland has recently tried out a version.
In the UK at the moment, it takes the form of an unprecedented jobs retention scheme for workers who would otherwise be laid off as businesses closed during the pandemic. Many workers have been furloughed, but the treasury is paying 80% of their wages up to £30,000. The average wage in the UK is around £25,000, and a minimum wage job would pay around £16,000 for someone over 25 employed full time. At present, 8.9 million workers are on the furlough scheme, and it has cost £19.6bn so far. Another 2.6 million people – those who are self-employed or not classified as employees — have also been helped through other schemes.
These moves to provide support for all laid off workers have cruelly exposed the plight of gig workers and the fiction that they are independent contractors. The Taylor report into the gig economy in 2017 estimated there were then 1.3 million workers regularly involved in gig work out of a UK labour market of 32 million. Though a small proportion, the same report predicted a rapid expansion in this form of work. These gig workers don’t qualify for the furlough scheme, because it was designed around an older model of work. Their relative invisibility and marginality in the labour market has made them difficult to reach by normal welfare routes, and most of the gig work they rely on has dried up altogether. The World Economic Forum has noted that gig workers were likely the hardest hit by the pandemic.
While the furlough scheme, and other employment support measures are temporary, it should invite debates about the nature of work today and about the potential of UBI, which may represent the answer to a whole series of questions that loom over the contemporary work place. That makes it particularly important for the working-class.
Many commentators on work and technology have suggested that we are entering — or may already be in — an era where the past certainties of work have disappeared. In my courses on the sociology of work, I have had to teach the concept of a job for life as history for two decades. Stable employment and occupational pensions are also becoming history. They’re being replaced by ideas about precarity, insecurity, the gig or platform economy, and a whole host of novel forms of economic relationship which undermine work, especially for the working class. Along with the by now familiar pressures of globalisation, outsourcing, off-shoring, and information technology, workers face new threats — AI, algorithms, big data, and robotics. These combine to destroy huge numbers of jobs – good and bad – that blue- collar workers have relied on for decade, and they increasingly affect white-collar and professional jobs as machine learning starts to take on medical, legal, and financial judgement in the workplace. Clearly, while efficiency and profits increase, the share of work is increasingly under strain, and this creates anxiety for workers, making them less willing to take risks or explore alternative forms of work.
Under UBI, everyone in a society would be entitled to a minimum basic income throughout their lives – even potentially as children. Welfare payments and the infrastructure of enforcement could be abolished or vastly reduced. The amount UBI would provide is up for debate, and some think that it might help those on middle incomes and even hurt the poorest. However, I think the benefit for working-class people is obvious – security. Security of income, accessible educational and training opportunities, and the ability to care and be present when their kids grow up or their parents grow old.
A key argument in its favour is that UBI enables people of all classes to make choices — to stay in education, to take a career break, go travelling, look after children while they are small, or look after elders – their own family or friends and neighbours. It would allow people to take risks in their lives, to start new businesses, or to retrain throughout their working lives rather than feel compelled to stay in jobs they hate in order to get by. This should be attractive to all regardless of class. Individuals, families, communities, and the population would all benefit from greater levels of education, knowledge, and skill.
Perhaps the argument that might flip UBI from a utopian pipe dream to something on the political radar is that it could enable fair green transitions. Too often workers in the high carbon producing parts of the economy feel compelled to defend the continued use and extraction of fossil fuels because they fear losing their jobs. UBI provides an alternative that can underpin a socially just economically viable transition to greener development.
At its heart, UBI is radical because it seeks to address some of the key drivers of inequality in our society – access to good work and a decent income. Everyone stands to gain but especially the working class – the group that is being most adversely affected by COVID-19. One of the positive things that could come out of this crisis is opening a fundamental debate about the relationship between our work, community, and society.
Tim Strangleman, University of Kent