During the current pandemic, governments have devoted much debate and effort to the maintenance of critical sectors of the economy – namely those that need to remain active to guarantee basic economic and social functioning, at least in the short to medium term. Many of these sectors are heavily dependent on workers typically seen as ‘unskilled’ who perform ‘low-value’ jobs. In this blog, Dr Stefania Marino, Professor Miguel Martinez-Lucio, and Professor Anthony Rafferty argue that the value of these jobs should be re-evaluated in light of COVID-19.
- Many of the occupations considered ‘key’ in the context of COVID-19 are characterised by high numbers of female, BAME, or migrant employees
- The pandemic has highlighted the importance of their role and contribution, which needs to be reflected in policymaking
- Action is needed to address problems of low pay, job insecurity, and poor regulation in these sectors
While the inclusion of economic sectors and occupations considered ‘critical’, ‘essential’ or ‘key’ to the pandemic response varies slightly between countries, some striking commonalities are evident, particularly in working conditions. These in part result from ongoing but extensive changes in recent years to labour market structure, composition, and regulation across countries.
Although critical workers remain a heterogeneous group, one common feature is that a large proportion of jobs in many key sectors are low paid and confer a high degree of job insecurity. The latter results from practices such as the increased use of flexible contracts, agency working, outsourcing, platform working, the evasion of regulation – or a combination of these factors. Another persistent feature across EU countries, not just the UK, is that those occupations characterised by poorer working conditions employ large numbers of groups disadvantaged in the labour market, such as women, BAME groups or migrant workers.
Working conditions during the pandemic
A common concern raised within the UK and several EU countries has been the need to guarantee the supply of migrant workers in key sectors in the face of lockdown restrictions and border closures. Examples of special exemptions to the restriction of international movement are the attempts to transport migrant workers. These have been well documented, together with the detrimental working conditions of these workers, concern for their health, and the potential wider public health implications. Migrant workers in the UK also experienced a disproportionate risk incidence of income loss during the initial wave of pandemic.
Internationally, the pandemic appears in some contexts to have fuelled broader anti-migrant sentiment. Yet, ironically, it has also opened discussions on the intrinsic economic and social value of these ‘essential’ jobs which migrants often work. Minimum wage violations, for example, also illustrate how regulatory non-compliance and exploitative practices remain of concern in key sectors (eg social care, food production). Arguably, these specific working conditions risk further reinforcing public perception of such roles as being of ‘low-value’, potentially making these jobs less desirable. For some, xenophobic prejudices or attitudes could also mean that the increased presence of migrants in certain occupations within recent decades has reinforced negative perceptions, as such jobs are viewed as being ‘unskilled’, less meaningful, or unsatisfying. This dilemma may arise due to stereotypes of migrants as being less skilled, despite the high levels of over-qualification among migrant workers (something which has been a common feature for some time).
Fairness at work
Although the pandemic may have influenced public perception, the issue at stake here is the extent to which the pandemic will lead to deeper policy level re-evaluation based on a greater commitment to fairness at work, ranging from inclusive migration policies to labour standards and labour market regulation. Alternatively, a longer running economic recession, historic government debt and potential austerity responses could undermine such objectives. These issues come particularly to the fore in the context of Brexit and potential future changes to rules regarding economic migration. For instance, the potential strengthening of minimum income requirements may place many migrant workers in a situation of uncertainty, while simultaneously challenging the employment models of businesses that have relied on low paid migrant labour. The issues that would need addressing are:
- a reconsideration of job value that isn’t exclusively based on purported skills, profitability or net economic contribution, as defined in narrower economic terms, but also considers broader public value within policy discourse;
- ways to guarantee a better level of dignity within currently low quality jobs and therefore better minimum income guarantee and working conditions;
- and how governments should regulate the admission to the countries of migrant workers in a more transparent and fairer way recognising broader social value criteria.
Policy recommendations: Ensuring fairness at work in the UK
Arguably, considerations of job ‘value’ and ‘status’ have been used in justification of the detrimental terms and conditions of employment attached to many critical worker roles, and in turn the recruitment and exploitation of migrant workers, partly by virtue of the higher representation within some sections of the economy. At the same time, current debates, such as revaluing key roles and the conditions of health and social care workers, provide an important window of opportunity for reflection on improving conditions in the lower paid and more precarious segments of such sectors.
In the long term, however, attention also needs to be devoted to the individuation of more general measures of job value, and in terms of their social value within policymaking settings beyond the emergency context such as in relation to migration policy. There are further issues regarding how poor employment conditions in some cases may adversely affect service delivery, for example where an efficiency drive to the bottom in labour costs occurs due to public underfunding or the low perceived value or profitability of certain activities. These developments also require a significant reinvestment in the labour inspectorate and the role of such key bodies as the Health & Safety Executive.
Better employment regulation and monitoring of the conditions of low paid and precarious jobs should therefore be at the heart of any meaningful strategy that seeks to show a genuine appreciation to those in society playing such critical roles in these unprecedented times. At the same time, many of the issues raised extend beyond ‘critical’ or ‘key’ workers and migrants. Accordingly, policy responses that address the broader problems of low paid work, precarious employment, and regulatory evasion, as well as the position of disadvantaged groups in the labour market, may help acknowledge the fundamental role of critical workers, but also that such issues are not confined to a narrow range of employment.