Coronavirus has forced the government to finally acknowledge the real wealth creators
Just months ago, the government described these workers as ‘low skilled’, now they’re the ones keeping our country going
This article was originally published in the Independent.
Amid the first nationwide school closure in modern British history, 10 Downing Street this week published a list of “key workers”: those deemed “critical to the Covid-19 response” in a bid to ensure that the country continues to function during the pandemic.
The list consists almost entirely of public sector and critical infrastructure workers; NHS staff, social workers, the police and military, and those working in energy, utilities and transportation.
The list also includes “those involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery, as well as those essential to the provision of other key goods,” like food and medicine. Note that while “essential financial services“ are included, the financial sector (read as, the City) has not been deemed essential to keeping the country functioning. It turns out then, that the government does value the work of shop workers and delivery drivers, even if they will rarely admit it.
Which begs the question — who really keeps this country together?
Only a few weeks ago, Johnson’s government described these jobs as “low skilled” and therefore low value. “We intend to create a high wage, high-skill, high productivity economy,” the Home Office said, as the government announced that it would be tightening immigration of such workers from Europe.
Yet this crisis has shown that we still rely on people to keep the lights on, to stock supermarket shelves, and to care for the sick and elderly. These “low skill jobs” are the bedrock of our society; so why the desire solely for “high wage, high-skill” work?
For decades, we have heard entrepreneurs and financiers of all stripes described as wealth-creating. The contexts differ, but the reasoning is the same. “I am a particularly productive person. I take big risks and so I deserve a higher income than those who simply benefit from the spillover,” those commonly regarded as ‘low skilled’.
The Conservative belief in “the absolute primacy” of such entrepreneurial wealth creation on the one hand has manifested itself in Tory governments’ deregulating and cutting corporation tax throughout the last decade. The pernicious implication of this is that all public sector and national infrastructure inhibits this value creation, serving as a weight around the necks of those who would otherwise fly highest.
Now we see what labour is really most valuable. We see that it is not only doctors and nurses, but also low-wage, low skill workers, confounding entirely the Tory logic of skill and value. The people described by this government as low skilled are the ones keeping this country together. By recognising them as “key”, the government has finally acknowledged the true wealth creators.
In recognition of their critical role, the government has pledged more benefits. All key workers will be “prioritised for education provision”, we were told on Thursday; and on Friday, the Chancellor aligned the government’s fiscal policy with other Western nations by unveiling a wage retention scheme where the government would pay 80% of the wages of those unable to work due to the pandemic.
But we need a bolder, swifter response from the government which reflects the urgency of the moment. This pandemic, given its scale and projected timeframe, is going to upend our economic order, and so provisions to mitigate it must be proportionately radical. At a bare minimum, the government must extend Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to all key workers.
Currently many shop-workers work too few hours to qualify, an indefensible caveat at such a time like this. Moreover, the paltry £94.25 a week must be augmented in recognition of the service such front-line workers provide. Housing key workers so they can afford to self-isolate now and protecting people from evictions during this pandemic — as well as in the longer term — is a necessity.
The Tories’ willingness to splash cash when push comes to shove, shows that the denial of benefits before, was down to a lack of will rather than capacity.
We must remember that when this is all over. The decision taken by Johnson’s government to put aside public money to protect employees and to fund public services, exposes the truth about a decade of austerity — that it was a political choice. One motivated by unfounded ideas of value and skills, rather than economic necessity. If their evaluation of key workers is unfounded, what makes us believe that the Tories can “level up’ Britain?”
When we have beaten this disease, the foundational importance of key workers will remain and so too should their protections. We cannot let this government backtrack on who the true wealth creators are.