Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:49 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 12:49 pm, 18th March 2020

My hon. Friend makes a couple of important points about the levels of pay and the people who are able to access it, and I will be coming on to deal with those things in my speech.

Some 7 million people are not eligible for statutory sick pay: just under 2 million workers on low income do not qualify because they earn less than the £118 on average; and 5 million self-employed people do not qualify. Those on low pay are some of those who will be hit hardest by the crisis. Many of them work in retail, hospitality and leisure, and we are also hearing of people being laid off in these sectors. Others will be concerned that their jobs may be at risk, and these anxieties could also make them more likely to carry on working, even if they are unwell. Nearly 1 million people are on zero-hours contracts. Analysis by the TUC found that the earnings of about a third of them do not meet the threshold for SSP, compared with a figure of 6% for permanent employees, and women figure highly in the number of people on zero-hours contracts. Overall, about 70% of workers who would benefit from the removal of the threshold are women. A Government consultation published last year highlighted that workers who do not earn enough to qualify for SSP may be “working when unwell”. It said that the Government believed that there was a case to extend eligibility for SSP to people earning less than the threshold. So will they now extend SSP to all workers, including those on low pay.

Along with the just under 2 million people whose earnings are too low to qualify, others on low income in the gig economy are not eligible because they are classified as self-employed. They include careworkers, cleaners and delivery drivers, the very people on whom we will be depending to an even greater degree than usual in the coming weeks and months as people have to self-isolate in greater numbers. My hon. Friend Helen Hayes has rightly highlighted, in a letter to the Government signed by 100 colleagues, that although NHS England has issued guidance advising trusts to give full sick pay to staff who have to self-isolate because of the disease, careworkers on zero-hours contracts will not be protected. They make up a quarter of the social care workforce. Will the Government ensure that they also qualify for full sick pay? In the case of delivery drivers, the GMB has worked with Hermes to agree on a fund to protect the income of drivers who fall sick or who have to self-isolate, but there are other examples of companies offering derisory payments or even requiring drivers to continue to meet the costs of renting vans even while they receive sick pay. We should not need to emphasise how important it is that people in occupations where they are going from one house to another should not go on working when unwell. We depend on people such as carers and drivers, and the Government have a responsibility to protect them if they are unable to work because of the outbreak.

There is also a case to extend statutory sick pay to the self-employed more generally, as the Irish Government have done. Many people who are disabled and who have been ill, for example, choose self-employment because of the flexibility that it can give them to choose hours that are manageable. However, they also may be now more vulnerable to the virus.

The level of statutory sick pay is far too low at only £94.25 a week, so even those who do qualify for it are likely to struggle to keep on top of even basic household bills. Average weekly earnings are currently £512, meaning that the average worker who has to self-isolate for 14 days will see their income fall by more than £850 during that time.