Stop blaming workers for COVID unemployment

26 February 2021

Simon Hannah argues that workers are not to blame for being out of work during the pandemic.

The destructive pandemic of COVID-19 has seen a number of countries lock down their societies to try and halt the spread. This has led to a reduction in profit in some businesses and a number of people being laid off. Unemployment in Britain now is skyrocketing, and set to go higher as working people are thrown out of their jobs by wealthy capitalists who couldn’t care less.

In addition, it is mainly lower-paid women and ethnic minorities losing their jobs, another example of the endemic sexism and racism under capitalism (despite what the law says).

But instead of understanding the world from that perspective a recent study ( by a university has found that over half of respondents blamed the workers themselves for becoming unemployed.

47% believed that most people had been made unemployed recently due to “poor performance”. Unsurprisingly, this view was more widely held among Conservative voters because their world view is utterly skewed, and tends to blame the underdog for their plight whilst letting the rich and powerful off the hook

Racism was also not uncommon. 13% said that Black people were more likely to be unemployed because they “lacked motivation and willpower” – a racist stereotype of Black people as lazy which was perpetuated during the time of the British empire. A further 4% said that Black people had “less in-born ability to learn”, another racist lie put about by white supremacists.

Whilst it is good that the outright racist responses are a minority, we still have some way to go to win the battle of ideas over the nature of capitalism and how it works in our society. The survey found that most people put inequality down to geography, not ethnicity or gender, even though whether you are Black or a woman has a huge bearing on your income, career prospects, and job security.

Every time there is a crisis of the capitalist economy working people pay the price. After the 2008 Financial Crash, unemployment rose significantly, leaving ‘redundant’ people demoralised, feeling hopeless, struggling to make ends meet. The government’s response was to increase the schemes for sending people to work for free whilst on benefits so they could ‘learn skills’ in areas like retail. But the unemployment wasn’t caused by a sudden overnight deskilling of the population. It was caused by a financial crisis that tore through the economy. Likewise, the recent spike in unemployment isn’t caused by a sudden bout of ‘poor performance’ but because of businesses shedding staff to protect profits.

Of course, because this is a university survey it doesn’t explicitly deal with notions of class but that is the starkest inequality between people, not which city you live in, though obviously most of the super-wealthy live in and around London and the Home Counties.

We need to start placing blame where it is due and organising to overthrow a system built on systematic inequality and oppression.

Simon Hannah is a Labour and UNISON activist in Lambeth, and the author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left and joint author of System Crash: An Activist Guide to Making Revolution.

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