By Kane Shaw, UVW

April 2020


Autonomy’s interactive Jobs at Risk Index (JARI) is a vital and timely contribution to understanding the current crisis and the uphill battles that lay in store for trade unions in a post-pandemic Britain. Many of the key findings are shocking whilst others are sadly predictable. If we were to take only one message away, it would be that those of us fighting for an end to the decades long stranglehold of neoliberalism must not cease to drive home the classist and gendered nature of the crisis.


77% of workers in High Risk positions are women whilst 98% of the workers paid poverty wages in those High-Risk positions are women. The average pay for workers in High-Risk positions is below the UK median wage while 1 million of those jobs pay, on average, poverty wages of just £335 per week. Consequently, if an economy can’t be divorced from the values underpinning it, it is clear that our economy has its values back to front.


22 out of the 28 most at-risk professions are classified as Key Workers. The workers most indispensable to tackling COVID-19. They are concentrated primarily in the healthcare sector and this includes cleaners and porters, many of whom were, until recently, classified as ‘unskilled’ and who despite the clapping continue to find themselves underpaid and, in many cases, outsourced.


Looking at the relation between the distribution of risk and income, the JARI reveals the most at-risk occupations to be the most indispensable and the least paid. Meanwhile, the most well-paid workers, such as CEOs or  financial directors, are arguably the least needed and the least at risk. These findings will be crucial ammunition for trade unions in the months following the pandemic.

A porter carrying samples from patients suspected of having COVID-19. Photo courtesy of UVW.

Autonomy’s findings strengthen our arguments that the workers upon whom we all rely have, for far too long, been subject to disgraceful levels of pay and morally indefensible terms and conditions of employment. However, what the research does not cover, and what it would be exciting to see Autonomy develop in future research, is how the crisis is affecting BAME and migrant workers.


United Voices of the World (UVW) has long argued that BAME and migrant workers disproportionately find themselves at the sharpest end of Britain’s Dickensian economy. We are currently witnessing first-hand how decades of erosion of workers’ rights and the proliferation of poverty pay is aggravating the crisis and putting workers’ health at risk. Something which is disproportionately affecting our BAME and migrant members.

Tales from the front line

At St. Mary’s Hospital in West London, cleaners and porters, who until recently were outsourced to French multinational Sodexo, fear for their safety. They fear the PPE they have been given is inadequate and will soon run out. Brute economic necessity has forced many of them to put their health at risk by coming to work when they should be self-isolating.


One striking case is that of Minervina, a cleaner and 59-year old Portuguese national who has diabetes, high blood pressure and fibromyalgia and recently spent 5 days cleaning a ward dedicated solely to holding patients with COVID-19. Her PPE consisted of a paper-thin mask, a set of latex gloves and a plastic apron with no more durability than a bin bag. She should have been at home self-isolating, but the inadequate sick pay offered by Sodexo meant she had no choice but to come to work.


Another cleaner, Vitalija, a Lithuanian national, had to self-isolate after developing symptoms when a colleague unwittingly cleaned the rooms of patients exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 without PPE due to rooms not being properly signposted.

Minervina, 59, cleaner. Photo courtesy of UVW.

At St. George’s, University of London, a medical college sharing the same building as one of the worst affected hospitals in London, St. George’s University’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, our members were left with no choice but to walk off the job. This was necessary to protect themselves and others from the potentially fatal threat of catching or spreading COVID-19 from or to students, colleagues, NHS patients and the general public.


This was a danger made all the worse by their employer, Bidvest Noonan, who failed to provide them with any PPE, failed to carry out a Coronavirus risk assessment (at least not one the workers were made aware of), failed to provide them with any additional training, and even failed to put measures in place to guarantee basic social distancing guidelines and laws were adhered to.

What next?

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg and many more will emerge before all this is done. For many of our members the crisis has been devastating. But in spite of this, we still believe there is room for hope.


The crisis has also made it abundantly clear that the workers upon whom we all rely are the ones who receive the rawest deal and that they deserve so much better.


And despite the inadequate emergency measures adopted by the government, such as its Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the funds released to realise these measures, not to mention the £13.4bn NHS debt write off, have revealed that our economy doesn’t have to be this way. This is an inconvenient truth for this government and for unscrupulous businesses; a truth they will find it all the harder to bury in the struggles that lay ahead.

About the author

Kane Shaw is Editorial Lead of Campaign Communications at United Voices of the World (UVW).