This summer has seen the impacts of both covid and Brexit on the British workforce. Service industry staff have been isolating in their thousands, leading to pubs, nightclubs, and shops being at risk of closure. Meanwhile, reports of emptying supermarket shelves are returning, with a mass shortage of HGV drivers caused mostly by Brexit.
Basic knowledge of supply side economics would suggest that this would result in better conditions for workers, and a few indicators have shown that this might be happening. Major chains have increased pay for lorry drivers, and Granville Williams has reported on the union drive underway in Amazon.
We are still in the early days of the recovery, but it’s worth looking out for more signs like this as the full impact of the pandemic becomes clear. If this were to happen, it wouldn’t be the first time that a pandemic had led to a revolution in workers’ rights.
The Black Death and workers’ rights
When the Black Death ravaged Europe in the 1340s, anything from a quarter to two-thirds of the population of England died. This led to a shortage of labour and, from it, increased wages. Local elites found themselves astounded at labourers demanding unreasonable wages and were horrified that these workers spent this newfound disposable income drinking and gambling in taverns.
In response, laws were passed to try to defy this ‘new normal’ and restrict wages both in England and across Europe. As Samuel Cohn writes:
“In England, those who fared the best in the first two decades after the plague were not labourers but the presumed victims of the new demographics-noble landowners-who according to Hilton gained relative to other social groups through ‘a general seigneurial reaction’.
“Instead of flowing logically from new post-plague demographics and economics, the realities of the supply and demand for labour the new municipal and royal efforts to control labour and artisans’ prices are better understood in the contexts of fear and anxiety that sprung forth from the Black Death’s new horrors of mass mortality and destruction, resulting in social behaviour.”
However, this did not stay as such for long. This continued oppression of the peasant class was met in England with the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. Although the revolt was put down, the effort to maintain order in the countryside led to a severe reduction of England’s military activity abroad, and as a result the demands of the rebels were gradually met. The institution of serfdom declined, dying out by the start of the 15th century, and the English middle class was born.
Workers’ right after the Spanish flu
‘The impact of the Spanish flu on Britain was less than that of the Black Death: (only) 228,000 people died, 0.6 percent of the country’s 39 million residents. However, this was on top of nearly a million people, primarily young men, who had died during the First World War.
Occurring in the shadow of WWI, British media downplayed the severity of the flu. As Martin Bayly explains:
“The wider context of the first world war and its aftermath was key in downplaying the crisis narrative. Rhetoric of a ‘war’ against the virus was absurd in this case. Scholarship has pointed to ‘war-weariness’ that seemed to shape the fatalism with which the outbreak was faced, but wider institutional, material, and social effects are apparent.”
However, in the United States, which saw 675,000 deaths from the virus, industrial action was widespread. Strikes by shipyard workers in Seattle, police officers in Boston, and Broadway actors, severely impacted the country. By 1919, four million workers (one-fifth of the workforce) were on strike nationwide.
It is difficult to disentangle the impact of the Spanish flu on workers’ rights from that of the war. A strengthened trades union movement in the UK led to the first minority Labour governments in 1923 and 1929. While changes were slow, due to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War, the upheavals of the 1920s would eventually lead to the inauguration of the welfare state under the Attlee government.
Can covid create this same effect?
There are reasons to be sceptical about the degree to which covid will lead to such drastic changes. Not only has the death rate been lower, but the average age of death has been very high, at 83. The median casualty of the Spanish flu in comparison was 28.
Moreover, this past year has shown how powerful employers can still be. We have seen bosses pressure workers to delete the test and trace app, and a recent push (led by the chancellor) to get workers back into the office against their will. Meanwhile, the companies that have been benefitting from the pandemic, like Deliveroo and Amazon, are far from perfect when it comes to workers’ rights.
But there are still reasons to think that this era may lead to a sea change in how workers’ rights are seen. For the past 18 months, teachers, shop workers, and NHS staff (among others) have been told that they are ‘key workers’ and that the country cannot function without them. Service industry staff have realised how much of a difference a few missing team members can make.
Meanwhile, many people have reaped the benefits of working from home, and some have moved out to the country, sacrificing potential social or career benefits for lifestyle improvements. Similarly, talk of comorbidities and underlying conditions related to covid deaths and hospitalisations has given us a greater awareness of the importance of healthy living and public health. In other words, not only have people realised their own importance the workplace, they may also have become more aware that there are things that are more important than work.
What about the Brexit effect?
Finally, there’s Brexit to consider. A shortage of labourers in areas like fruit picking has highlighted the exploitative conditions under which migrants were made to work. As we’re seeing with the HGV drivers, bosses are faced with two choices if they want to keep production going: improve pay or improve conditions.
It’s worth being cautious here, of course. Already the TUC has pointed to a “widening gap” between the UK and the EU on workers’ rights, and there are signs that the government is intent on further widening this gap.
However, as we saw with the Black Death, market forces can force a state to make changes against its will. Even if there are fewer protections in law, communal action by workers and support for better conditions among the public could lead to a sea change.
History is as much about trying to find common patterns that connect events, as analysing why certain events defy these patterns. Whether covid – alongside Brexit – will result in similar consequences to past pandemics is not yet certain, but will form a crucial part of our post-pandemic narrative.