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Government rhetoric: change needed

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LabourList, low-skilled workers, brightest and best, Corona virus pandemic, Covid-19, frontline staffOur country is relying on workers deemed as ‘low-skilled’.

By Kelly Grehan

Over the last few days, we have entered a world that feels very different to that which we unknowingly enjoyed just weeks ago.

It seems like a lifetime ago now – but just a month ago headlines were concerned with Home Secretary Priti Patel’s announcement that the UK’s immigration system has “for too long” focused on “low-skilled workers” coming to the country.

We were told that a new points-based immigration system will focus on the “brightest and best” coming to the UK.

The policy made clear that workers who earn less that £25,600 per year will be denied a visa from next year.

The implication here is clear: anyone earning under this amount is an ‘unskilled’ worker and their work holds no real value.

Having looked at these new rules, the Royal College of Nurses, the Home Care Association and National Farmers Union immediately expressed concern that the new rules would decimate their respective industries.

Of course, their warnings were of no interest to the government.

This week, however, it has become undeniable who the workers this country relies upon are – indeed many of the same jobs deemed as ‘low-skilled’ are now on the list of key workers, the children of whom will allowed to attend school during the crisis.

Examples of these workers include:

Nurses – starting salary £24,214;

Hospital cleaners – average wage £16,000;

Hospital porters – average wage 19,500;

Healthcare assistants – average wage £17,039;

Refuse collectors – average wage £24,000;

Delivery drivers – average wage £15,000; and

Supermarket workers – average wage £13,000.

While many of us in the so-called ‘skilled’ professions are able to self isolate, and work from home, it is ironic that so many of the very workers deemed ‘unskilled’ are the same ones on which we now rely to keep us safe, in good health and who are at the forefront of dealing with the societal difficulties we have seen come about as a result of the crisis.

They are all being asked to ‘keep calm and carry on’ in incredibly difficult circumstances and to use skills the government implied last month they either did not have or did not count for much.

In the case of the supermarket workers, for example: skills in dealing with crowds of people in panic, upset and bewilderment, breaking up fights between shoppers determined to get the last toilet roll, helping vulnerable people to get the food they need and managing the stock to ensure there is enough for anyone.

All at the same time as carrying the same worries we all have and trying to follow the advice to keep their risk of contraction low.

Many of us will have heard carers, who go into vulnerable people’s houses, saying that they are worried that they are unwittingly putting the people they care for at risk because they are entering multiple houses each day and carrying out intimate tasks without any way of knowing if they have contracted Covid 19. They could just be asymptomatic and endangering the lives of the people they look after.

But at the same time they know that if they don’t visit, that person will be alone and with no means of caring for themselves and that this is very dangerous too.

Only a week ago, social care was not considered worthy of a mention in the budget.

Then there are delivery drivers, without whom we would have no supplies in food, medicine and everything else we need.

In the future, when we look back at this challenging part of our history, as a nation and as a society we will owe a debt of gratitude to all those workers who have carried us by being on the frontline during this time.

I very much hope that future government policies, including those concerning pay and conditions, and the rhetoric that the government uses when talking about these workers recognises that debt.

If anything good can come out of this awful time it is surely that we will finally recognise that many of our low-paid workers are actually, to quote the Home Secretary, “our brightest and best” after all.

A version of this article appeared on the LabourList website on 24 March 2020.

  1. Mary Hickman says:

    I absolutely agree with this. For far too long those in power have had a false set of values. In many ways for example Hospital cleaners are the most important because of bio security.

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