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Paul Vallely: Low-paid does not mean low-skilled

22 May 2020

Many key workers should be earning more, says Paul Vallely


A supermarket worker scans items last month

A supermarket worker scans items last month

NORMAL politics, it seems, has resumed. Opponents of the Government recently published a list of the 323 MPs — including Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, and Jeremy Hunt — who voted, in 2017, against a Labour-proposed “fair pay rise” for nurses. The Daily Mirror, after printing the names, added: “The story isn’t fake news: Tory MPs did vote down a ‘proper’ pay rise for nurses . . . and they did cheer when the vote was announced.”

A great deal has changed since then, you might think. The Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet take pains to be seen applauding the nurses — and other key workers — at 8 p.m. every Thursday. And Mr Johnson has gone out of his way to name and thank the two nurses who sat by his bedside 24 hours a day when he was in intensive care with Covid-19.

This is about more than the nurses. If you look at the list of “key workers” published by the Government as essential to society’s efforts in fighting the highly infectious virus, they also include hospital porters, the staff in care homes, other carers, refuse collectors, postal workers, delivery drivers, fruit-pickers, and supermarket checkout staff.

Most of this group have something else in common: they are all low-paid. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that one third of key workers earn less than £10 an hour. The Resolution Foundation reckons that a million care workers are paid less than the real living wage of £9.30 an hour (£10.75 in London). Yet these people are engaged in work that is physically demanding, emotionally draining, and often dangerous, thanks to the shortage of personal protective equipment.

Public attitudes to this group are said to be changing. A recent ICM poll suggested that almost two-thirds of the public agreed that “the coronavirus crisis has made me value the role of ‘low-skilled’ workers, in essential services such as care homes, transport and shops, more than before.” We have come to question the notion that low-skilled, low-paid, and low-value are terms that can be used interchangeably, as many politicians glibly have in the past. The skills of compassion, empathy, and diligence and the commitment of those who so serve the public should demand that, as a society, we re-evaluate this false equivalence for our post-pandemic world.

So, it was alarming this week to see the sad old tropes trotted out by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. With an extraordinarily insensitive sense of timing, she brought to Parliament proposals for Mr Johnson’s post-Brexit “points-based” immigration system. To justify the plan — which will exclude many of the kind of workers from overseas who have been keeping the NHS on its feet in recent weeks — she declared that this “firmer, fairer, and simpler system” would “attract the people we need to drive our country forward, through the recovery stage of coronavirus, laying the foundation for a high-wage, high-skill, productive economy”.

Oh dear. She clearly has not left behind the lazy mindset that sees high wages and high skills as synonymous. The skills that we need for a civilised society, we have been vividly shown, are not those that have traditionally brought high wages. Now is surely the time to begin to change that.

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