In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, a radical reassessment of what is considered ‘key work’ has taken place. For many key workers, however, this status is not reflected in their salary, employment rights, or social perception. Here, Abbie Winton and Professor Debra Howcroft, from the Work and Equalities Institute, discuss the disproportionate risk/reward equation key workers – particularly women – face, how the COVID-19 crisis will impact their future, and what policymakers can do to address inequalities at work.
- Key workers face a disproportionate risk of COVID-19, with a strong overlap between ‘key roles’ and ‘low’ or ‘unskilled’ work
- 60% of key workers are female, as a result of entrenched and structural inequalities
- Key workers are particularly vulnerable to automation of their role
- More legal and social protection is needed for key workers, including the extension of employment rights, and a reclassification of ‘low skilled’ work
On 19 March, the UK government published a list of ‘key workers’ considered to be critical to the provision of services during the COVID-19 crisis. These workers amount to 7.1 million adults across the UK, the majority of whom are female. Many ‘key workers’ receive the National Living Wage, the minimum wage set by the government for over 25’s. These workers are vital for society to function, yet the degradation of the employment relationship illustrates how the value of labour is not dependent on an impartial measure of supply and demand but is constructed by the social context within which it is embedded. In light of the current crisis, a radical re-think of how labour is valued – both socially and financially – is needed, leading to policies which ensure that key workers are paid and protected in a way that reflects their critical contribution to society.
Gendering of ‘key workers’
Of the designated ‘key workers’ in the UK, 60% are women (compared to 43% of workers outside of these industries). As a consequence, 77% of workers in occupations identified as being at ‘high-risk’ of contracting COVID-19 are also women, underlining their role in frontline work.
The predominance of women as ‘key workers’ is a result of the historical normalisation of ‘women’s work’, and persistent structural inequalities within waged and unwaged work. Numerous occupations remain largely feminised and are often valued less than occupations associated with ‘men’s work’, despite requirements for equivalent skill levels (eg social care and construction work require comparable NVQ levels).
Feminist theory informs us that how society perceives, and constructs skills is a pervasive determinant of value as opposed to the actual skill required to do the job. Feminised roles have long been deemed ‘unskilled’ or ‘low skilled’ as they are seen as an extension of unwaged work in the domestic sphere (eg health, social and child carers, cooks, cleaners). Therefore, although many of these feminised ‘key roles’ provide a critical service, they continue to be undervalued.
The mismatch of skill and value
While some key workers are employed in ‘skilled’ professional roles, many are categorised ‘unskilled’ or ‘low skilled’ according to Standard Occupational Classifications (eg food production, sales and delivery, social and other healthcare roles). While the social value of certain roles fluctuates depending on the needs of society at any given time, the financial value of work remains bounded by the social perception of the skills which the role demands. This bias which shapes evaluations of skills is likely to deepen inequalities and the way in which work is valued.
What is the future for ‘key roles’?
While some suggest that COVID-19 generates uncertainty for future investment in automation, a survey of employers shows they are accelerating plans to automate roles while workers stay at home. Future uncertainty is of concern for women as they are likely to be disproportionately impacted by processes of automation given their concentration in particularly vulnerable roles, such as sales and cashier roles.
Considering the example of food retail, the demands of the crisis has demonstrated the value of human labour, as well as the importance of skills which are commonly overlooked and undervalued. For example, activities which require non-cognitive skills (shelf-stacking, picking and packing), or require an element of ‘human-touch’ (helping elderly and vulnerable members of the public, monitoring social distancing, intervening in practices of bulk buying) remain difficult to automate.
In the UK, to cope with increases in demand, 45,000 temporary jobs have been created in food retailing and existing roles have intensified, both in terms of consumer expectations and working-time (exemplifying many ‘extreme work’ characteristics, such as extended working hours, increase in demands for multi-tasking, and the regulation of emotion of both colleagues and customers). In the US, 100,000 new jobs have been added in Amazon’s fulfilment and distribution network, even though many of its warehouses rely largely on robotics systems. Therefore, while employing people often remains cheaper than investing in new technology, certainly in the short-term, a lesson we have learnt is that technology alone cannot save us in a crisis.
What policymakers can do
Given the increasing prevalence of precarious working conditions (such as zero hour contracts, underemployment, and unstable hours) full employment rights and adequate social protection should be extended to all key workers. Gendered assumptions around skills in the workplace require an overhaul, so that traditionally feminised occupations receive appropriate recognition and recompense.
In parallel to this, a re-assessment of social value is required so that key workers operating on the front-line, many of whom are risking their health, are fairly rewarded by pay which reflects this. In times of crisis we see how those who are critical to the functioning of society are largely undervalued and often low-paid. The public response to ‘clap for carers’ symbolises an appreciation of social value from grassroots level, which will hopefully influence policymakers and result in a levelling up that is long overdue.
The Standard Occupational Classification needs to be re-evaluated in line with technological advances shaping both the supply and demand of skills, with a focus on the way in which skills which defy automation are valued. Investment in technological change is to be welcomed, but on condition that potential productivity gains are redistributed with a view to creating a more equal society.
Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
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