Sunday, June 20

Test-and-trace workers must pay the government’s zeal for outsourcing | Allyson pollock

WAlthough Covid-19 has highlighted structural inequalities in Britain, the government’s response to the pandemic has ironically reinforced these inequalities by allowing companies to perpetuate temporary, poorly paid, unsafe, unsafe and unsafe inequalities. unhealthy working conditions.

Take the test and trace system, a crucial part of preventing the spread of Covid-19. Decades of funding cuts have destroyed infectious disease control services, including NHS laboratories and contact tracing. As a result, public health teams were forced to cope with the onset of the pandemic. There was a dearth of evidence, while contact tracing and community testing stopped on March 12, 2020 and was not resumed for a few months.

But instead of rebuilding public health capacity in the laboratories of the NHS and local authorities, the government hastily built a parallel privatized test and trace system at an estimated cost. £ 37 billion to date, outsourcing these crucial services to private Lighthouse laboratories and companies with little public health experience. Serco received £ 350 million for the management of test centers. An increase in earnings means that the company will soon pay its first dividend in seven years, with a distribution of £ 17 million for shareholders and a payment package of £ 4.9 million for its chief executive.

While those at the top have benefited, it appears that workers at the bottom of this supply chain have been squeezed. Some staff members who work as call handlers at contact tracing, test sites, and the Lighthouse lab in Milton Keynes have noticed anomalies on their pay stubs. They say they claim they are being paid by companies they have never heard of, headed by unknown directors based in the Philippines.

Every few months, or even weeks, they are transferred to the payroll of a new company. After comparing notes, some have found that these companies do not pay more than one worker on their team. What the payroll doesn’t show is the name of the recruiting agency they thought they were working for. Although The Guardian has seen no evidence that the companies named by the test and trace workers have claimed employment subsidies, the use of these companies raises concerns about the due diligence that has been carried out with the outsourcing companies and agencies. contracting that receive public funds.

These payroll companies, sometimes referred to as mini umbrella companies, are often, but not always, used to exploit a tax break known as an “employment subsidy”, which is supposed to offer start-ups and small merchants a discount on the national insurance contributions they make. each staff member (the allowance is worth up to £ 3,000 per company per year until April 2020, amounting to £ 4,000 during the pandemic). In practice, what can happen is that staff are transferred to a new mini umbrella company as soon as the allowance is exhausted, which could mean that employers would avoid having to pay their share of national insurance.

HMRC has previously warned companies that employ temporary workers about the dangers of this practice. Labor supply chains can be long, and the recruiting agencies that supply workers may not even know the names of the companies that employ these workers. Companies that have been contracted by the government to provide services must verify the full length of their supply chains. But many companies know that breaking the law is not a barrier to obtaining new contracts.

While mini umbrella companies can be a bonanza for companies, it is bad news for the staff they employ. Workers may find that as they move from one company to another, they face difficulties accruing vacation pay. As a result of the change of company, workers can remain in an emergency tax code, which means that the tax is overpaid and must be claimed.

These temporary employment arrangements often result in a lack of training for workers and little prospects for advancement. In turn, job insecurity, which is an endemic feature of UK employment, is associated with stress and poor physical and mental health. As we have seen during the pandemic, people with insecure contracts are more likely to work when they are ill, even with Covid-19 symptoms, putting other workers and their families at risk. This seems likely to have been a factor in the spread of Covid-19 and nursing home deaths. In fact, almost a quarter of the 1.5 million health professionals employed in England are in zero hour contracts, a quarter were paid a living wage of £ 7.83 or less, based on 2018 figures, and many are agency staff. Not surprisingly, some of those workers, many of whom do not even receive sick pay, felt they had no choice but to keep coming to work.

The pandemic has highlighted low wages and job insecurity. If ever there was a time to rebuild and train a safe workforce in the health and social care sectors, it is now. However, privatization and outsourcing are instead becoming normal work practices across the NHS. Many foundation trusts and commercial GP surgery providers are already creating businesses and outsourcing services ranging from catering and cleaning to physical therapy, labs, surgery, and diagnostic services. The normalization of these temporary and unsafe forms of employment is likely to reproduce the same risks that led to outbreaks of Covid-19 cases during the pandemic.

Allyson Pollock is Clinical Professor of Public Health at Newcastle University and author of NHS plc: the Privatization of Our Health Care

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