'We don't know how long we can keep going': The desperation of Welsh workers hit hard by Covid

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on billions of people around the globe, with work and income one of the hardest hit aspects of life.

In the UK, around 695,000 workers have been removed from the payrolls of British companies since March, according to ONS figures.

Now, as Wales emerges from a two-week firebreak lockdown, there are concerns about the thousands of workers and families who are struggling to make ends meet.

New figures suggest 22 per cent of workers in Wales are earning less than the real Living Wage, which has just risen by 20 pence to £9.50 per hour.

The First Minister said thousands of workers will benefit from the pay rise, which he announced on Monday, particularly those working on the frontline during the pandemic.

But Covid has claimed tens of thousands of Welsh jobs, meaning families across the country still face an uncertain future.

Mother-of-two Angharad Vaughan Jones has just lost her job at Peacocks. Credit: ITV Wales

Mother-of-two Angharad Vaughan Jones, from Llanllyfni, recently lost her job at clothes retailer Peacocks - the company is facing administration, which is putting 21,000 UK jobs at risk.

"When I was due to get back into work, I was told I was going to be furloughed because no shops were open, but it's really hard to keep your mortgage going if you have no work coming in," she said.

Her partner, Marcus Williams, works in caravan maintenance, but has been advised by his employer to seek other means of income, such as Universal Credit.

"I hope to dear God it doesn't happen - but as soon as the business shuts down, I will be out of work.

"I'll have to seek other ways of getting income because Universal Credit alone isn't enough to maintain this house."

Angharad and Marcus live on the Llŷn Peninsula, where wages are some of the lowest in Wales.

The young couple's hopes of buying their own home has now become a distant dream.

"We've been saving up, but it looks like it's going to be another 20 odd years before we'd be able to save up to eventually get a house," Marcus said.

Angharad added: "We don't know how long we can keep going really, especially if Marcus leaves work."

Theatres and events venues across Wales have lost thousands as a result of the pandemic. Credit: ITV Wales

Retail, hospitality and tourism are just some of Wales' vital industries hit hard by Covid, with the creative sector - a new Welsh success story - also being brought to a standstill.

Ruthin actor Karen Campbell would usually have spent her winter working at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, but says "this year there's no work, none whatsoever."

She explained: "Usually I'm occupied into January, so I'd be in rehearsals probably from now, but that's all gone."

Karen added that she has been taking part in online performances through video call platforms, but that it doesn't have the same effect.

"It's so different, because when you finish doing your play online and you press that button to leave the room, you're just back in your room.

"It's an empty feeling, and I don't like it."

Ruthin actor Karen Campbell is hiking up Moel Famau every day to raise money for her freelance peers. Credit: ITV Wales

In a bid to raise emergency funds for her freelance peers, Karen has been walking up Moel Famau, a 1,821 ft high hill, every day as part of her exercise during lockdown.

"I'm not doing this for me, I'm doing this for other people because there's a lot of people out there who haven't got an income, who haven't got any means of finance.

"I want to make sure that they've got Christmas, their kids have got presents, and they've got food."

The Welsh Government has announced various funds to support the economy through Covid, including a £53m fund for cultural organisations, but there are calls for a longer-term solution.

Credit: PA Images
  • Could a Universal Basic Income be a solution to poverty in Wales?

The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales believes a Universal Basic Income (UBI) pilot scheme could rescue the struggling sector and act as a trial for a payment for all in the future.

Sophie Howe said: "We hear a lot about the economic recovery – but just as important is the creative recovery.

"Wales’ creatives – the artists, writers, poets, musicians, performers and more – will be vital in getting the country back on its feet – but they need to be better supported.

"The sector was already struggling before the pandemic and its survival depends on a ground-breaking response.

"So a basic income would go further than an emergency hand-out – this could save jobs, protect our long-term cultural future and help Wales’ recovery."

UBI is a regular payment made to every citizen of a country or territory, with some calling for it to replace benefits such as Universal Credit.

The proposal is gathering support, but some believe the money needed to introduce it could be spent more effectively.

Critics of UBI say it is too expensive, arguing the money could be spent more effectively. Credit: PA Images
  • What are the problems with UBI?

Victoria Winckler, Director of the think tank Bevan Foundation, said: "If you had UBI at a level that was sufficient to escape poverty, then you'd be looking at more than £20 billion, which is a lot of money.

"The quickest win would be investing in an emergency fund that people could access when they literally have no money, which a lot of people are facing at the moment with lockdown."

She also called for increased child support, including free school meals for children whose family receives Universal Credit, and investing in housing.

The Welsh Conservatives have also opposed UBI, claiming it would be unnecessary for those who are more financially secure.

"By its very nature, it would have to be ‘universal’, so whatever your income and circumstances, you would receive it," said Shadow Economy Minister Russell George MS.

"For the better off, it would be unnecessary; for the less-well off, it would worsen poverty and inequality, or just shift the ‘relative poverty’ up by the amount given out.

"The Conservatives are a party of a hand-up, rather than a handout. Further, it could disincentivise people without work, in part-time work, or looking for better-paid work to look for other employment."

Carers are among the workers said to benefit from the rise in the real Living Wage. Credit: PA Images
  • How effective is the living wage in helping Welsh workers?

According to the latest Living Wage Foundation figures, more than 11,300 people working for 264 real Living Wage Employers will receive a pay rise as a result of the new wage.

Thousands of key and essential workers like cleaners, care workers, delivery drivers, and supermarket staff, are said to benefit.

But research also found 265,000 workers in Wales are earning less than £9.50 an hour.

Commenting on the new figures, Wales TUC General Secretary Shavanah Taj said: "People who work for a living ought to earn a decent living.

"It’s not right that so many of our workers struggle to pay their rent and bills and feed their families.

"The prime minister promised to ‘level up’ Britain. The UK Government must start by working with unions to ‘level up’ pay and conditions across the whole of the UK."

"Here in Wales, we are working hard to tackle low pay through our fair work agenda.

"Our social care forum, set up in social partnership with Welsh Government, is an example of our efforts to drive out low pay in the independent care sector.

"We are committed to making similar advances across all sectors in Wales."

The UK Government created the Jobs Support Scheme as a direct replacement to furlough, and it becomes available on November 1, just as the previous scheme ends.

The ban on travel during lockdown has had an impact on some of Wales' biggest sectors. Credit: ITV Wales
  • Analysis by ITV Wales Work and Economy Correspondent Carole Green

It certainly is tough for both employees and for businesses in those hard hit sectors - tourism, hospitality, leisure and retail.

We know politicians are bracing themselves for further rises in unemployment. It could reach 10 per cent - that's 1980s levels - and certainly not the low levels we have been used to in recent years.

Older generations here in Wales will remember those days and won't want to return to them.

However it is the youngest who are being hit hardest in terms of holding onto the jobs they've got - they are twice as likely to be furloughed - or accessing the job market for the first time. 

The latest extension of the furlough will help some, giving businesses time to adapt.

For others, I've seen it come too late and they were already resizing their businesses to fit reduced demand and have let people go. Those job losses are starting to come through in the unemployment figures now.

Businesses are "can do" by nature. As ever the adaptable ones will stand the best chance of survival.

Whilst there are great challenges, there are opportunities too. There's a desire out there for Covid to be a turning, reset point, for the pandemic to act as the catalyst to change for the better what has gone before.

So there's pressure for a greener recovery, a more local way of living which is better for the environment, the need for more digital inclusion as more jobs are done from home, and access to healthcare and education as it moves online.

These ideas existed pre-Covid, but they are now higher up the political agenda and there's more urgency to move on and adapt. 

The reality is, Covid hits the poorest and the unhealthiest hardest, and Wales doesn't do well on those measures.

With hopes a vaccine is on the horizon, that will be welcome news for lives and our livelihoods - ultimately you can't separate the two.