On my South London street, windows are still dotted with posters bearing rainbows and messages like ‘We Love Our Heroes’ or ‘Thank You Key Workers’. Now slightly tatty, these posters, much like the abandoned weekly clap, form part of the memory of a collective expression of gratitude for our frontline workers who ventured out while the rest of us stayed in.
But gratitude didn’t keep workers safe. Those forced to labour while others sheltered routinely found themselves working without adequate personal protective equipment and in close proximity to infection. Now, Trade Union Congress (TUC) research has found that gratitude doesn’t pay, either: a million children of key workers are currently living in poverty. In some regions, like London and the North East, that goes for more than a quarter of children in key worker households.
According to the TUC’s research, low pay and insecure hours are the main drivers of key worker family poverty, with both those factors disproportionally dominating the occupations that were deemed ‘essential’ at the outbreak of coronavirus: refuse workers, cleaners, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, security guards, food processing workers. The organisation also cited the public sector pay cap, high housing costs, and the low rate of Universal Credit as factors in explaining why work is failing to keep key worker families out of poverty.
The government’s designation of ‘key worker’—and the endless refrains of ‘self-sacrificing’ and ‘valiant’ attached to it—has been relied upon to obscure the shameful fact that, while key workers are responsible for keeping society functioning, no one is responsible for them and their children. In the words of sociologist Musa al-Gharbi: ‘The services are classified essential, yet the personnel providing these services are not. Indispensable labour; disposable people.’
Covid-19 has reanimated questions around work, blowing wide open long-held notions on the nature of what it means to labour. The public health crisis has exposed contradictions between work that contributes, and work that might be deemed ‘bullshit’, as well as contradictions between the risks involved in performing key work and how that work is remunerated. Faced with the TUC’s research, as restrictions lift, the question that remains is this: why are wages so pervasively low in the industries most crucial for our material survival?
A decade-long drive towards low-wage, insecure jobs, and the attendant in-work poverty this explosion created, formed the background against which the pandemic has played out. Prior to the pandemic, key to the justification for low pay has been that those in ‘unskilled’ jobs are lazy, or that if they actually wanted higher wages, they would simply seek out higher paying jobs. The arrival of Covid-19 near universally challenged this way of assigning value, with many disregarded, minimum-wage, and low-paid jobs reclassified as ‘essential’ overnight.
But, as journalist J. C. Pan writes, ‘recognition isn’t the same thing as power.’ This dynamic is evidenced perfectly by the government’s initial recommendation of a 1 percent salary increase for NHS staff—now raised to a barely better 3 percent—which saw ministers lauding healthcare workers as heroes while cutting their wages in real terms. Likewise, when Boris Johnson and his then fiancée, Carrie Symonds, gave a joint television appearance last October, he called NHS workers ‘the beating heart of our nation… the pride of Britain.’
This reverence, with its militaristic allusions, characterises the behaviour of essential workers as the performance of a patriotic duty. As has been widely noted, the rhetoric of recognition obscures the fact that key worker suffering is the result not of some inherent martyrdom, but of current government policies. The TUC has set out recommendations that would secure decent living standards for key worker families, including raising the national minimum wage to £10 per hour and cancelling the proposed £20 cut to Universal Credit – but a framing that relies on ‘recognition’ creates a dynamic in which the beneficiaries of key work need only to ‘recognise’ the extent of those worker’s sacrifice, and be sufficiently grateful for it.
The contradictions of this system are perhaps best encapsulated by the experience of migrant workers, over-represented in ‘low-skill’ key professions, who have been classified as essential one moment and threatened with deportation the next. When chronically insufficient salaries and low hours left some migrant key workers in need of assistance, due to the condition of No Recourse To Public Funds (NRPF)—a restriction connected to people’s immigration status that prohibits them from accessing welfare benefits like housing and child support—almost all found themselves ineligible for state support. When the condition was put to the Prime Minister by Labour MP Stephen Timms at the start of the pandemic, he seemed to have no knowledge of it, asking why those with NRPF didn’t apply for Universal Credit or Employment Support Allowance.
On 6 April 2020, the eligibility criteria for free school meals to children from families with NRPF was extended—temporarily—by the Secretary of State for Education. Additionally, a successful legal challenge was brought this April by a five-year-old boy and his former key worker Zimbabwean-born mother against NRPF on the basis that it ‘breaches the duty to safeguard child welfare.’ Despite these developments, it’s evident that the poverty of key worker children cannot be understood without reference to the punitive immigration system of the Home Office.
The ease with which professionals were able to withdraw during the pandemic was facilitated by the labour of key workers – whether they were making the Waitrose ready meals to be served up for convenient family meals, delivering Amazon packages or groceries, or undertaking the nannying that enabled parents to work from their bedrooms. This offloading of childcare and domestic responsibilities onto low-paid key workers came at the expense of those workers spending time with, or money on, their own children. Put bluntly, the pandemic saw key worker parents labouring for the better off and their offspring, while their own children lived in poverty.
As the final remaining rainbow posters are taken down, it’s clearer than ever that paying thanks does not equate to paying decent wages. This is not a reality that is sustainable; more than that, it’s not one that’s fair. Something has to give: as TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady puts it, key workers ‘put themselves in harm’s way to keep the country going through the pandemic. Now, we must be there for them too.’