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It is time to make amends to the low-paid essential worker | Free to read

UK employment

It is time to make amends to the low-paid essential worker | Free to read

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the plight of a precarious army labouring around the clock

Key workers are employed in some of the worst paid and most insecure jobs in the British economy © Alamy

Economies around the world are going into hibernation. Governments that have imposed lockdowns to slow the spread of coronavirus are focused on how to help the millions who have been put out of work. But not everyone is hunkered down at home. Essential workers must go out to keep the lights on and their fellow citizens fed. This has exposed an uncomfortable truth: the people we need the most are often the ones we value the least.

The situation is particularly stark in the UK. Doctors and nurses have rightly received an outpouring of national gratitude, but they are not the only ones on the front line. The list of “key workers” also includes those who work in nurseries, care homes, food factories, warehouses and delivery drivers. These are some of the worst paid and most insecure jobs in the British economy.

Official data suggests that more than 40 per cent of childcare workers aged 25 and over, who should be covered by the minimum wage, are paid below it. Almost 60 per cent of those who provide care for people in their own homes in England are on so-called “zero-hour contracts”, which do not guarantee regular hours or incomes. Workers in fields and food factories often have to accept temporary employment contracts with fewer rights and no security. Many delivery drivers are classed as self-employed, so they are paid per “drop” and receive no sick or holiday pay. 

This precarious army labours around the clock. On Monday I spoke to a domiciliary care worker who visits bed-bound clients in their homes (she did not want to be named for fear of punishment by her employer). She was in the middle of a 10-hour shift, having worked 14 hours on Saturday and 14 on Sunday. “We’re all putting the effort in,” she said. She is paid £9.75 an hour at weekends and £8.75 in the week, which amounts to about £1,700 a month. 

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has promised to pay all non-essential furloughed employees 80 per cent of their salaries, or up to £2,500 a month. That was the right thing to do to prevent mass unemployment. But it means the government is paying higher wages to some people to sit at home and do nothing than others who are being paid to do essential work — and at personal risk to their own health. Social distancing is not possible for a careworker. 

Unison, the union for many care staff, has been raising concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment. The care worker I spoke to had gloves but no mask; she had purchased her own hand sanitiser. Her company, which employs her on a zero-hours contract, would only pay statutory sick pay of £94.25 a week if she developed symptoms and had to self-isolate. “Before, I would have gone into work with a cold or a cough — now I’d have to stay off but then I don’t know how I would pay the bills.”

Of course, it was always senseless for care staff to be disincentivised from staying away from often vulnerable clients when they were unwell. Coronavirus isn’t the only bug that can be deadly to the old and frail. But the pandemic has forced us to acknowledge problems we have long found it easier to ignore.

There are things we can do. In the short-term, having splashed a lot of cash on the unemployed, the chancellor should pay a “national gratitude bonus” to every key worker who is risking his or her own health to keep the rest of us comfortable at home.

Once the economy has recovered, these jobs need to be made better. Insecure contracts and loopholes should be replaced with permanent jobs, better wages and more training and accreditation. This would not be costless. Admittedly, some companies in low-wage sectors such as food, care and logistics would simply make less profit. 

The care worker I spoke to, for example, is convinced her employer could afford to pay staff more “if you compare what the private clients pay to what we get”. But others have wafer-thin margins already, such as social care providers that have bid competitively for contracts from cash-strapped local authorities.

It is likely, then, that we would have to pay more for some things. Food would become more expensive; higher taxes would be required to fund social care and childcare; home delivery might no longer be free.

Some will object that higher prices would push those on the breadline into deprivation. But the answer is not to keep these goods and services unfeasibly cheap, it is to use the tax and benefit system to make sure nobody is so close to poverty to begin with. A look at Scandinavia shows that a different balance between wages and prices is perfectly possible. 

Coronavirus has forced us to rethink who we value and how. Some of the workers we have left to languish in low-paid and insecure jobs are the very ones we cannot live without. It’s not just time to be grateful. It’s time to make amends. 

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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