Hero Today, Gone Tomorrow: Fair pay forever

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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As a global labor leader, I’ve repeatedly heard the comment in recent months that, “It’s great working people are finally getting the recognition that they deserve. There’s so much media coverage and public displays of support”. Indeed, day after day during the pandemic, the press reported that these “everyday heroes” had been overlooked and underappreciated. 

They are the grocery store workers who ensure our communities stay fed; the care workers who give vital support to the sick, disabled and elderly; and the cleaners and security guards who keep our hospitals, buses, parks and streets safe and clean.

Mostly female and disproportionately racial or ethnic minorities, these workers showed up on the job even though there was no PPE and, too often, because there was no paid sick leave. They put themselves and their families at risk to get their jobs done. The OECD’s annual Employment Outlook just recognised that the crisis is being carried on the shoulders of women, minorities and low-paid workers: “The so-called “frontline workers”, who work in essential services in jobs that cannot be carried out remotely, are more likely to earn low wages”.

But while these workers’ public profile has risen, there is still an open question as to whether there is any real commitment to lift their low standards at work. Indeed, wages are likely to fall for many as employers rescind the meager “bonus” pay they offered during the pandemic to keep people on the job.    

Facing the Jobs Crisis: Key findings from the OECD's Employment Outlook

For example, in the United States, more than 40 grocery chains such as Kroger, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have announced the end to “hero pay”. United Kingdom supermarket chain Tesco terminated its 10% appreciation bonus on 30 May, as COVID-19 cases continue to swell in that country. Aldi’s extra payments ran out at the end of April, but the risks continue even now.

This is an unimaginably cold-hearted response. It is obvious that the danger of infection has not yet passed and in fact tensions and harassment of grocery store workers have increased, especially as they are called upon remind customers of the requirements to wear masks.  

These workers—who have proven how important their work is during a deadly pandemic—deserve fair pay forever, not only when danger looms.  

But a focus on hero pay misses the bigger point. These workers—who have proven how important their work is during a deadly pandemic—deserve fair pay forever, not only when danger looms.  

Temporary “hero bonuses” in supermarkets are not a substitute for wages on which families can live securely. That is why unions around the world are demanding more. USDAW in the United Kingdom, UNIFOR in Canada, SDA in Australia and the UFCW in the United States all have campaigns to lift wages for food retail workers. In Germany, the union IG BAU is demanding a pay rise for cleaners, as are unions such as SEIU in the United States and SITOBUR in Peru. In Argentina, the Sindicato de Salud Pública de la Provincia de Buenos Aires has fought for—and won—job and wage security for care workers there and many other care unions are gearing up for a global campaign.

These fights are part of a global coalescence around a core set of demands to establish essential rights for essential workers: an expansion of collective bargaining, a dignified wage, safe work and, especially in the United States and United Kingdom, paid sick leave.

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By valuing essential work fairly, we would raise millions out of poverty—in a time when our economies need good jobs more than ever. We would protect communities while protecting frontline workers. And we would help shift the balance of power—and wealth—from the few to many.

We know the facts of inequality, which have been repeated incessantly in recent years. Over the past 30 years there has been a declining labor share in the global economy, at least half of this owing to a drop in collective bargaining. The inequality of wealth has reached levels never seen at any time in the modern world, if ever. The number of “working poor” has exploded—in the United States, the richest country in the world, more than 1-in-10 households are working poor, and globally that number is compounded by the rise of precarious work.   

All of this has led us to the point where real wages have been flat for decades and even mainstream economists such as Larry Summers have raised the cry for more unions to level the playing field. The revised OECD Jobs Strategy recognises the central role of collective bargaining for resilient labour markets and in combatting inequality. Last year, the OECD, prominently recognised that strong unions and coordinated bargaining are a social good, necessary for democracy and social cohesion.  And in the COVID crisis, the OECD is calling for more collective bargaining in long-term care as a long-term solution to the problems exposed by the pandemic. The Employment Outlook 2020 also recognises the central role both social partners – trade unions and business associations – play in this crisis.

What's your share of the pie? In only a few clicks, with the OECD's Compare Your Income tool see where you stand in your country's income distribution, and share your views on how income in your country should be distributed.

We are in a unique moment of historic opportunity, a moment in which we have a real choice about redirecting the future, when we have the possibility to do something about inequality. Do we want to continue along the path of the past, one which assigns essential workers among the lowest wages of society, often without paid sick leave or even, in some countries, healthcare? 

As the Swiss Minister of Health Alain Berset recently asked, “After the crisis, will we have the political will to remedy the abuses that we have identified during this time? Or will our regard for the ‘systemically relevant’ professions discreetly transform back into cheap rhetoric?”  

These workers deserve better. More than tokens of appreciation, they need a transformation of our economy that values their work, that values what is essential. It is time for a global reckoning on this score. 

Now is the time to press the reset button on how we value work.

For more information

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Work
Income Inequality People Power

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Christy Hoffman

General Secretary, UNI Global Union

Christy Hoffman is the General Secretary of UNI Global Union, the global union federation for the services industries representing more than 20 million workers in 150 countries. An influential advocate for corporate accountability and the human rights of workers, she has extensive expertise in international standards and tools governing this area. Her work at UNI followed more than 25 years of experience as a US based trade unionist, beginning as a shop steward in a jet engine factory and later as legal counsel to leading US unions, spanning sectors including coal miners, delivery drivers, security guards and health care professionals.

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