Workers’ rights have been brought to the forefront of public discussion during the Covid-19 outbreak. The scandalous behaviour of some big businesses has hit the headlines and new government incentives have had to be introduced to encourage companies to keep their employees during the crisis. With an increasingly conscientious consumer base ready to hold businesses to account, how organisations act during the pandemic has the potential to leave a lasting shadow on their brand long into the future.

One company to face serious backlash because of its treatment of employees is bookseller Waterstones. Shops across the country continued to stay open even after government advised all non-essential workers to stay at home, putting store staff at risk. Employees were refused any protection from the virus, with the company banning them from wearing gloves and face masks, provoking #BoycottWaterstones to trend on Twitter.

Another business to respond badly to the Covid-19 outbreak was hotel chain Britannia Hotels. The company’s heartless redundancy letters went viral, inciting much contempt towards the brand. The letter, entitled ‘Services no longer required’ informed staff that their ’employment has been terminated’ and asked them to ‘vacate hotel accommodations immediately’. The company later retracted the letters and claimed they had been sent out due to an ‘administrative error’.

Among many others on the business blacklist are Tim Martin’s Wetherspoons, which suggested staff no longer needed by the company get jobs at Tesco; Sports Direct, which also continued to stay open long after the government advised non-essential businesses to close; and billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, which told its staff to take eight weeks’ unpaid leave after an unprecedented drop in demand. The coronavirus crisis is highlighting the worrying lack of workers’ rights in the UK and those businesses that treat their employees unfairly are increasingly facing boycott calls.

But this isn’t a new issue. Increasing indignation over workers’ rights has been bubbling for a while as businesses find themselves under ever greater scrutiny by a consumer base prepared to speak out. Take the #BoycottASDA scandal last year, where thousands of customers pledged to boycott the supermarket giant in the face of its decision to impose contract changes on staff. People are prepared to act on what they see as irresponsible or unethical business behaviour and, in this social media age, are able to take an impactful stand against it. Internal company culture has quickly become a key buzzword, something which all companies, whatever the sector, can no longer ignore.

So what’s causing this shift in attitude towards workers’ rights?

A company’s treatment of its employees is garnering greater media attention, and businesses are keen to explore its potential as a marketing tool. With increasing awareness of the issues surrounding employee wellbeing and the growing pressure placed on businesses to act in a socially responsible manner, the way companies treat their workers is quickly becoming a crucial part of company dialogue. In this digital age of transparency which empowers consumers to instigate real change, brand-damaging scandals can be seriously detrimental for a business.

So what will this mean? Will we simply see more websites filled with glossy photos of smiling employees high- fiving? Will the push for better working conditions end at the worker’s right to a ping-pong table, pinball machine and beer-fridge in chic open-plan offices? Or will this trend lead to substantive change and real improvement in working conditions and rights for all workers?

A striking example of a company explicitly exploiting its workforce as a mechanism for improving brand image is Amazon’s recent advertising campaign. These short promotional videos show cheerful employees working in one of their distribution units, fantasising about Donna’s cakes, and end with the offer of a guided tour of Amazon’s warehouse facilities. But the GMB Union (the general trade union in the UK) has been left distinctly unimpressed by the campaign, arguing that Amazon has ‘wasted millions’ on advertising instead of addressing its ‘unsafe’ working conditions, which include ‘hundreds of ambulance call-outs, workers suffering electric shocks, heart attacks and even miscarriages’.

Interestingly, it’s not just minimum wage workers eliciting sympathy from the public. Indeed, white-collared, well-paid city workers are also an important part of company propaganda, as people become more conscious of working conditions in the face of a rising ‘burnout’ epidemic. A recent Gallup study of 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 per cent felt burnt out at work very often or always, while another 44 er cent reported feeling burnt out sometimes. And mental health is currently cited as one of the top reasons for absenteeism, as a high-pressured workforce find themselves unable to turn off from their jobs.

While this greater focus on employee wellbeing is a positive step forward, we need to make sure the changes go beyond the glossy website photos, and encompass all workers in the proposals for change. We need to be careful not to let companies simply ‘happy-employee-wash’ their brand in the same way surface-level environmental initiatives allow them to ‘green-wash’, claiming the benefits of positive brand perception whilst shirking the necessity for real change. We need to continue to be prepared to expose and call businesses out for unfair treatment of employees. Only by actively holding companies to account will the necessary changes happen.

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak will be far-reaching; but one positive outcome of the crisis is that it may pave the way for greater rights and protections for workers in the future. Exposing how quickly many businesses were prepared to dump their employees on the scrap-heap, laying-off thousands without pay, illustrates the worrying lack of rights many workers in this country face. Much more needs to be done to ensure employees receive the basic protections they should be entitled to.

Today, businesses are all too aware of the impact brand reputation has on an organisation’s success. Let’s hope that, even if companies face no moral qualms about firing half their staff, this desire to avoid brand scandal will inspire them to treat their workers fairly throughout the pandemic and into the future.

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