Furlough Doesn’t Mean Workers Are Lazy Or ‘Addicted’ – We Just Don’t Want To Die

The government's change in narrative around employment is prioritising the economy's health over its people, says writer Shahed Ezaydi.
Workers are having to make impossible decisions about their safety.
Workers are having to make impossible decisions about their safety.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced the coronavirus job retention scheme will now be extended to October 2020. The programme, which pays workers 80% of their salary if they’re unable to work, was introduced in March as a way to avoid mass unemployment and long-term damage to the economy.

And it’s a welcome relief that has, so far, kept a quarter of the UK’s workforce, around 7.5 million people, in employment. More importantly, it has meant workers do not feel forced to go into unsafe environments.

I was one of these workers. I’m now working from home, but was furloughed from my job for five weeks earlier in the crisis. It gave me a safety net in a time where safety nets are particularly hard to come by. It can reduce people’s anxieties around job security and their financial situations. It keeps people afloat instead of falling into unnecessary debt, which could affect people for years to come.

However, even though the furlough scheme has been extended for another four months, the government also announced that workers who cannot work from home are now being “actively encouraged” to go back to work. This is part of measures introduced this week in an effort to ease lockdown.

The furlough scheme being extended, but also actively encouraging workers who cannot work remotely to go back to work, seems to be at odds with each other. And that’s because the government is shifting its narrative around employment and workers.

The Conservative Party is built on limiting state regulation and involvement. It’s one of its core values. It has positioned itself as far from being a “nanny state” as possible. But this pandemic has forced them into new territory, as they stepped in to support the economy, jobs, business, and transport, to name just a few.

But this was never going to last. We’ve already heard senior government officials accusing workers of being “addicted” to the furlough scheme and of needing to be “weaned off”. As if we are children being told off. As if it’s our choice that we’re unable to work. The narrative has moved to treating furloughed workers as lazy or scrounging off the state.

While the chancellor rejected these suggestions yesterday in an interview stating: “Nobody who is on the furlough scheme wants to be on this scheme,” make no mistake, the shift in narrative around the furlough scheme and workers is very much a conscious and deliberate move by the government.

It serves to shame people that are using the furlough scheme and effectively pushes them back into work, even if that workplace isn’t safe to go back to.

But we aren’t lazy or addicted to state funds. We are just extremely wary and nervous about the fact lockdown is being eased without any concrete safety measures put in place for people to go back into work.

In his national address on Sunday, the prime minister encouraged people to go back to work, without having finalised or published measures for employers on the health and safety of work environments. This government is prioritising the health of the economy over the health of its people.

This week, we heard about the awful case of Belly Mujinga – a rail worker who died from the virus after being spat on whilst on duty. Questions are now being asked as to why she was made to work in the first place, as she had an underlying health condition, so she was at a higher risk from the virus.

Sadly, this most likely won’t be a unique case. Many people may feel as though they have to go back to work. Otherwise, they may lose their job, even if it does come with heightened risks to their health.

This is why the furlough scheme is so vital to the health and safety of workers. It keeps us safe from the risk of being exposed to the virus, whilst retaining our jobs and salaries. It doesn’t mean we’re lazy or avoiding work, and it definitely doesn’t mean we’re addicted to the scheme. We shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed. We have every right to feel anxious and nervous about returning to work with the pandemic still very much raging on.

Shahed Ezaydi is an environmental research & content writer for Intelligent Facility Solutions, and a freelance writer.


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