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Big business making a killing from Covid in Scotland

STUC calls for a ‘people’s recovery’ to protect workers from profiteers

By Derek Kotz
Industrial reporter

BANKERS, big business and landlords in Scotland are making a killing from the Covid-19 crisis, according to research by the STUC published today.

Online retail giants, some manufacturers, fund managers, property owners and the already well-off are revealed to be the big winners from the pandemic by the report, titled Who’s Winning From Covid?

Banks, landlords and utility companies have bagged a “significant proportion” of the financial support provided by the Scottish government, while structural shifts in Scotland’s economy have hit employment and the low-paid hardest, it says.

Authored by Laurie McFarlane, a policy fellow at the University College London institute for innovation and public purpose, and New Economics Foundation researcher Christine Berry, the study identifies major trends that have disrupted the economy north of the border.

More than a third of retail sales now take place online and there has been a parallel shift from social activities to “at home” services, while the increase in home working has led to a dramatic fall in travel, the report says.

It points to the pandemic’s “polarising effect” on household finances. The growing disconnect between incomes and the cost of housing has been exacerbated, with a surge in prices benefiting landlords and developers, while private renters with falling incomes are under increasing pressure.

For the already better-off unable to spend spare cash under lockdown, there has been an increase in household savings, but there has also been a near doubling of the number of people in Scotland relying on universal credit, to nearly half a million, as those already struggling have lost jobs or been furloughed.

The authors warn that Scotland is facing a “double whammy” of job losses in the move to online retail, as large UK online operators don’t have major offices or staff bases in Scotland and the related employment will move south if current trends are sustained. 

The report identifies the “reshoring” of some supply-chain manufacturing as a potential benefit, but says that there needs to be a “more interventionist” approach if it is to generate highly skilled and well-paid jobs.

It highlights the need for a radical shift in funding priorities to target support towards growing green and socially useful sectors, including through the creation of a national care service and investment in childcare provision. 

And rather than simply betting on a revival of city-centre retail and office working, it calls for empty shops and offices to be repurposed as shared spaces under public or community ownership. 

STUC general secretary Roz Foyer said: “We already knew that the pandemic had reinforced the structural inequalities that already existed in Scotland. 

“But while workers in low-paid jobs with no guaranteed hours have been at the sharp end, this report shines a light on those companies who have profited from the crisis. 

“We need a people’s recovery to create a sustainable economy where workers are protected from the profiteers.” 

Stewart Forrest, Scottish divisional officer of retail union Usdaw, said: “During the pandemic, millions of low-paid workers have provided essential services to help ensure the country is fed, healthy and safe throughout.

“Usdaw members employed in our supermarkets, distribution warehouses, food processing sites and home delivery operations welcomed the key worker status, but that respect and appreciation must not fade into the background when this national crisis passes.

“There must be urgent action to safeguard jobs in Scotland’s retail sector. We need a recovery plan that includes measures to level the playing field between online and bricks-and-mortar retail and investment in skills for retail workers.

“The recovery plan must have workers at its centre to ensure that retail jobs are no longer insecure, underpaid and undervalued.”

The Scottish government, under election purdah rules, said that it had allocated over £3 billion to help businesses and a further £1bn to help local communities and to build resilience in local services, adding that it had also made a range of grants available since the start of the pandemic.

Who’s Winning From Covid? is available at www.stuc.org.uk.

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