Low Pay ≠ Low Skill

The Covid-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus the extent to which a functioning society relies on people within caring professions. Each Thursday evening, I have joined in as families up and down the country have come together to ‘Clap for Carers’ as a way of symbolically showing their appreciation for those who are risking their own health to meet the needs of those within our society who need help.

What the crisis has also done is to remind us all that being ‘vulnerable’ is not something that just happens to other people. Each of us, given the right circumstances, can quickly fall into the category of ‘vulnerable’ and in need of the care that our helping professions provide. This reminder has, I’m sure, contributed to a renewed respect for our carers. As with much of what happens as a result of Covid-19, our attitudes towards carers is a new way of thinking.

It is wonderful that the nation is getting behind those who are in caring roles, but clap all you like, that won’t put food on their table, it won’t pay their bills and it won’t give them the security of having enough left at the end of the month to save for the future. Historically, those in caring roles are paid significantly less than much of the rest of the workforce, with many not even being paid enough to live on. Real respect means properly rewarding those who care. Real respect is not being content with carers being forced to use food banks.

For years, there has been a passive acceptance that many caring roles are unskilled and that this absence of professionally accredited competence is reflected in their low pay as a consequence. Indeed, Government policy appears to echo this: recent immigration policy has suggested that the way we measure who might be considered a ‘skilled’ migrant is by setting a wage threshold rather than looking at the social value of the job they might do; if your earning potential is below that threshold, you are unskilled and shouldn’t come to work in the UK.

Another example is playing-out within British universities. One of the ways that Government measures the quality of a university programme is to record the level of earnings a graduate in any discipline might expect to achieve. What lies behind this idea is that if university leavers earn below a particular pay threshold, the university hasn’t done a good job of preparing students. If they are getting low pay, the fallacious argument goes, it must be because they don’t have any valuable skills. This is clearly nonsense, but it is in real danger of creating a disincentive for universities to provide programmes for students wishing to enter caring professions.

An important aspect to this is the way in which employers exploit structural disadvantages stemming from discrimination: our nation’s carers are more likely to be women, working class, from BAME communities and LGBT. In their article titled ‘For love or Money – or both?’ Nancy Folbre and Julie A. Nelson (both feminist economists) say this:

“Many of the women entering wage employment have moved into jobs considered socially appropriate for women, contributing to a persistent pattern of occupational gender segregation. Many have shouldered responsibilities that involve paid care for others, leading to segregation by industry as well as occupation.”

As a white and male university lecturer, I would be considered highly-skilled and am fortunate to be rewarded accordingly. When I began my working life in the early nineties, I was a teaching assistant in a school for children with learning disabilities before working in a housing project for young people experiencing homelessness. I worked in both places for a total of eleven years prior to me obtaining any professional qualifications and both were for low pay. However, I am happy to disclose to you that both of these roles required at least as many (if different) skills than is required of me as a university lecturer.

From its emergence in the late seventies, there is an almost impregnable orthodoxy that welfare services are better and more efficiently delivered for by private providers. This saw the privatisation of many public service providers in the eighties and was followed by the so-called ‘commissioning’ of personal care in the following decades. Many of the welfare services that would have been run by the state are now run by private equity. They don’t do this for philanthropic reasons, they do this because of the staggering profits that can be made. There is a simple equation to understand this: the council pays your company £100 to provide care. In order for you to make profit, you cannot spend the whole £100 on delivering the care. Corners will need to be cut and one of the most effective ways to do this is to keep carers wages low.

It is also my conviction that the low pay carers receive isn’t about the regard in which they themselves are held but is indicative of the low regard that is held for the people for whom they provide care. Since the time of the Poor Laws, people in need of welfare support have been considered morally insalubrious and a burden. Pick up a ‘Daily Mail’ on any given day and you will quickly discover that these attitudes still rampantly persist. The belief that disabled people are all on the scrounge or that children in care come from underserving and feckless families has resulted in a persistent underfunding of services. Ten years of austerity has made a bad situation even worse.

There is also a powerful idea that carers’ motivation should be one of love and self-sacrifice. I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that carers should be motivated by love, but I also happen to think that our carers deserve to be properly remunerated for the work that they do, be properly protected when they go to work and be afforded a level of professional curtesy that is sadly often missing. None of this can be replaced by Matt Hancock’s green badge.

Low pay is not a reflection of someone’s skill; it reflects a combination of discriminatory practices, profiteering from private equity and a general contempt for those in need of care.

I do hope that Covid-19 will be an awakening, but I fear that when the crisis is all over, we will simply carry on just as we did before. Those with powerful self-interest will continue to exploit the good will and kindness of others and those who are in caring roles will continue to have no voice and no way of changing the status quo.

So, when the clapping is all over, what will YOU do?

Keith Bishop is a Youth Worker, Foster Dad and Senior Lecturer in Working With Children, Young People and Families at Newman University in Birmingham. He tweets at https://twitter.com/YouthWorkerBish 

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