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It’s Time to Stop Calling Essential Workers ‘Unskilled’

The coronavirus crisis has revealed that many of the workers the government calls 'unskilled' are essential to our society – and deserve not only more respect, but better pay and conditions.

The term ‘unskilled worker’ is a surprisingly hard one to define: Does it depend on the level of skill of the worker, or the level of skill required by the job? What level marks the threshold, and does it vary by country, by organisation or by personal preference?

The elasticity demonstrated by this phrase when put under any level of scrutiny reveals the most fundamental truth about it: that it says more about the pre-existing prejudices or political objectives of those applying it than it does about its intended subject.

After all, what is ‘skill’? Take one job generally considered highly replaceable: is it not skilful to dash tirelessly between scores of impatient diners, a dozen plates delicately balanced in muscle memory along your forearms and knuckles – all the while exuding the simultaneous auras of cheeriness, empathy, composure and servility?

Well, according to the UK government, it isn’t. In February, the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced plans for a new points-based immigration system that would see various types of “low-skilled labour,” including waiting staff, nursery teachers, social carers and supermarket assistants, barred from obtaining visas in a post-Brexit Britain.

If those last three jobs ring a bell, it might be because they were also recently included on a list of ‘key’ workers by the government: occupations deemed so essential to society’s continued functioning that they remain entitled to emergency childcare, while the vast majority of us stay cooped up in our homes in an indefinite coronavirus quarantine.

In an almost fable-like twist, a mere two weeks after the announcement of the new immigration laws the government was forced to unveil another plan: the Coronavirus Action Plan, in response to the most devastating pandemic to sweep the globe since the Spanish flu of 1918.

The coronavirus strain currently spreading like wildfire is so contagious that even fiercely libertarian countries like the US and the UK have implemented legally enforceable nationwide lockdowns, measures which were ridiculed as despotic when applied by China only a few weeks earlier.

With the response much the same in all countries hit by the virus, the global economy as we know it has ground to a halt, revealing, in one month, the essential work which actually keeps our society running and dispelling the myths about the centrality of places like the City of London.

In his 2010 book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, Owen Jones wrote that if we got rid of “all the cleaners, rubbish collectors, bus drivers, supermarket checkout staff and secretaries…society [would] very quickly grind to a halt.”

He went on to claim that the disappearance of many highly paid workers, however, such as “advertising executives, management consultants and private equity directors,” would make little different to the functioning of society: in many cases probably improving it.

Distressing though it is, what this pandemic crisis has highlighted is the fallacy of dividing the labour market in the way we have been for decades: particularly when, as we have seen during times of crisis, some of the most poorly regarded and compensated work is among the most important (and selfless, as coronavirus frontline workers have demonstrated).

Applying the term ‘unskilled worker’ arbitrarily, as the UK government has done, is a problem not only because of the bureaucratic limitations it imposes on those burdened with the label, but because, as LSE professor Patrick McGovern argues, “[it] is a hopelessly inaccurate description of a functioning human being.”

After all, there are no “universal units of skill” to allow for objective comparisons between proficiencies, says McGovern. An attempt to do so using market value quickly comes up against more emotive metrics: how many people would judge a footballer’s skillset to be worthier than a nurse’s, say, or a social worker’s?

Value judgements are also commonly made on the basis of training: whether the education is ‘formal’ – that is, received from among a number of state-sanctioned, fee-charging institutions – or merely acquired on the job. Although both may provide skills (including the kind of tacit knowledge, or ‘tricks of the trade’ that cannot be easily measured through standard testing), only one comes with a photocopiable seal of approval.

So, if the term does not function as an accurate descriptor in the context of the labour market, why then is it applied? As argued by McGovern, one answer is that this terminology is used simply to justify the exclusion of certain people. In what can either be considered a slip-up or a brazen aspersion by Iain Duncan-Smith in 2017, we see the true attitude of the privileged towards this section of the workforce: low-skilled is merely a dog-whistle substitute for low-value. 

Nathalie Olah argues in her book Steal As Much As You Can that this state of affairs was exacerbated by the Blair administration, under the guise of “Education, education, education.” Thatcher’s violent dislocation of the British economy from industry to services called for a larger proportion of the workforce to be trained in the academic disciplines most useful to the industries formed around the financial sector, such as accounting, IT and management consultancy.

While a policy focus on education is no bad thing in and of itself, incentivising academic attainment – and thereby creating generations of workers obsessed with quantified point-scoring – over practical and vocational training inevitably leads to great numbers of people feeling left behind by the education system and deprived of any notion of advancement before they have even reached adulthood.

Those who do not thrive under this system therefore tend to remain locked out of prosperity in later life, derided as either stupid or lazy if they do not conform to the financial model of attainment. As Labour MP Stephen Pound put it in Chavs: “the working classes have been sold the line that they shouldn’t be there.” In other words, if a worker wants to be successful in this world, their only option is to drag themselves up and out of their class, leaving that identity behind them.

In addition to the prejudices perpetuated by labelling perfectly skilled jobs as unskilled (it also promotes the marginalisation of certain ethnic groups and those who have, for whatever reason, come back to learning at a later stage in life) the problem with disincentivising the uptake of essential work is that it is then considered almost universally undesirable; far below the ambitions of the ‘aspirational’ working class.

However, the demand for these jobs never goes away – at least not in any society we can envisage with the technology at our current disposal. The deindustrialisation of the 1980s provided an opportunity for the UK to place a higher value on such roles. However, as Olah notes: “the extent to which the service economy would be able to compensate for the job losses caused by the dismantling of industry had either been wildly overestimated or wilfully ignored.”

In Steal As Much As You Can, she suggests that one of the most regrettable consequences of capitalism has been the confusion of market value with morality. Under a system in which aspiration is synonymous with financial enrichment, jobs with a lower market value (often the kind which involve serving or helping other people) are widely seen as symptomatic of failure.

If one good thing comes of this pandemic, let it be a widespread change in that attitude, and an end to the ‘unskilled’ label once and for all.