It is women, especially low-paid, BAME & migrant women putting their lives on the line to deliver vital care

Date Posted: Tuesday 31st March 2020

Data released from Autonomy confirms today what the Women’s Budget Group suspected about who is on the frontline of the Coronavirus crisis and how their work is valued:

There are 3 million people in high exposure jobs in the UK. 77% of them are women.

Of these workers, 1,060,400 are earning ‘poverty wages.’ 98% (1,046,400) are women.

A large percentage of these workers are women doing precarious work on part-time, temporary or zero-our contracts. Many of these sectors including health and social care workers also have an overrepresentation of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority women and migrant women.

It’s official: it is women, especially low-paid, BAME and migrant women currently putting their lives on the line to deliver vital care to the British public having previously been told they are ‘low-skilled’ or undeserving of liveable wages or stable contracts.

The Coronavirus crisis is truly exposing how our economy is designed back to front and upside down.

The high-risk workers identified in this study by Autonomy range from undertakers to home carers to prison officers and paramedics. 22 of the 28 professions identified by Autonomy are ‘key workers’ as defined by the Government. There are some key occupations missing relevant to the current crisis including supermarket and delivery staff, but this data gives us a very clear picture of the people on the frontline.

It shows that it is occupations and people who have been historically undervalued and degraded by society who are now propping it up. Over a third of high risk workers are earning ‘poverty wages’ – defined by the Government as less than 60% of median average earnings at less than £391 a week Full Time Equivalent (FTE.) With many of these workers working on part-time and zero-hour contracts, their weekly pay is likely to be significantly lower in real terms. This means that many of these life-saving workers also may not qualify for Statutory Sick Pay as you need to be earning £118 a week to qualify for a weekly SSP payment of £94.25.

There is a cruel irony here in that many of the women, for it is mostly women, most at risk of contracting Coronavirus may not qualify for SSP, paltry though it is, if they do get sick.

A second irony is that migrant workers are over-represented in many of these occupations compared with their percentage of the population. These are the very same people that just weeks ago Priti Patel deemed ‘low-skilled.’ They would not qualify for a visa under the Government’s proposed points-based immigration system, yet this crisis revealed they are absolutely crucial to keep the country going.

And, many of these migrants are paying for the NHS twice through taxes and the Immigration Health Surcharge all the while providing vital care. They also have no recourse to public funds so should they need to claim Housing Benefit, Universal Credit or take refuge in a women’s shelter during the crisis – they cannot.

Care work is the most damning example: it has historically been seen as an extension of ‘women’s work.’ It has been undervalued, underpaid and increasingly takes the form of precarious working arrangements like zero-hours contracts as a result of cuts since 2010 and before. 24% of care workers are on zero-hours contracts and home carers are not paid for their journeys between houses. Migrant workers are also over represented in care work with 1 in 5 carers being born outside the UK, 1 in 7 from outside the EU.

The median full-time weekly wage for a female care worker is £384.80. This is £6.20 below even the Government’s poverty line. Even if they are receiving full-time earnings, carers now on the frontline are living £6.20 below the poverty line. Now, many are being expected to continue home visits to the elderly and disabled without the necessary protective equipment, putting themselves and their family in danger. Many may not qualify for SSP if they do fall ill because it is very difficult to calculate consistent weekly earnings on zero-hours contracts.

With gross earnings of approximately £19,990 FTE they also fall short of the £20,480 minimum salary threshold for a visa under the Government’s proposed new immigration system.

What a succinct example of a sector abandoned in recent decades now expected to step up and save the nation at high risk and on low pay.

This crisis is truly a time of reckoning for our socio-economic perspectives and priorities. For too long the government has prioritised bankers over carers, roads over teachers’ salaries and individual wealth over collective protection from risk. Human beings, especially women and migrants, have come to be regarded as ‘efficiency machines’ capable of being infinitely exploited, much like the planet.

This data shouts loud and clear: our priorities are all wrong. Health and care are public goods that ought to be valued and sustained as such. This means valuing women’s work. We cannot expect women in high risk jobs to continue to put their lives on the line without liveable pay and permanent contracts, including universal adequate sick pay. We cannot demand that migrant nurses pay for the NHS twice but then cannot pay their rent. If Coronavirus shows us anything it is that we can do things differently. And we must.