Coronavirus and the workforce: low pay does not equal low value

The coronavirus pandemic makes it clearer than ever that the roles we need most as a society are not necessarily the ones we value. This must change 

Take a look at the list of roles the government has classed as ‘essential’ in the fight against coronavirus, and you will also be looking at a list of some of the lowest paid jobs in the UK. A study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies finds one third of key workers earns less than £10 an hour and that average hourly wages for this group are 8% lower than for other, non-key occupations. 

Carers, delivery drivers, fruit pickers and supermarket checkout staff: this army of key workers is keeping those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home safe, fed and watered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are these roles some of the lowest paid, they are also those classed as ‘low skilled’ under the government’s recently unveiled (before the pandemic became a reality) post-Brexit immigration plans.  

COVID-19 has shone an uncomfortably stark spotlight on the difference between work which can be done from the relative comfort of one’s own home and work which can’t, and the gulf between secure and insecure employment. Analysis from the RSA finds those most able to work from home ‘are likely to be highly paid, and enjoy greater job stability, opportunities for progression, and generous pensions’. Conversely, many gig and low paid workers cannot afford to self-isolate, effectively being forced to choose between their physical and financial well-being.  

Take care home workers as one pertinent example. According to a report recently published by think tank The Resolution Foundation about half of frontline care workers – that’s about 1 million people – are paid less than the real living wage (£9.30 an hour; £10.75 an hour in London). During this crisis, carers are working in even more demanding, emotionally draining and dangerous (due to PPE shortages) conditions. Their pay does not reflect this and, as laudable as the clap for carers campaign is, you cannot eat applause.   

Challenging long-held perceptions and driving change 

We might now, however, have the impetus and conditions to drive some lasting change. COVID-19 is forcing us to reconsider many concepts that have long been generally accepted: organisations needing to have office space to function; the value in travelling halfway around the world to attend a single meeting; the intrinsic rightness of the 9-5 working day. All of these ideas are currently being unpicked. Isn’t it time to also question the value we place as a society on certain sets of skills? Because right now, those skills we need the most are those we have traditionally placed the least value on. Could we come out of this pandemic with a newfound respect for lower paid roles and sever the equation between pay and value?  

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and author of the 2017 Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, hopes so. When we spoke recently for a People Management piece on the longer term impact of the coronavirus, he told me he believed the current situation was making people ‘much more aware of work that is low status and low paid’ and that he hoped it would put more impetus behind the concept of ‘good work’. ‘These “low status and low paid” jobs are the jobs that have proved to be enormously significant when it comes to maintaining our day-to-day lives,’ he added. 

They are also jobs that have been classed, apart from caring, as particularly vulnerable to automation. But this crisis has proven that the robots aren’t quite coming for our jobs yet; the technology simply isn’t ready. Rather than invest in AI, Amazon hired 100,000 more workers in less than a month to cope with increased demand – and now plans to hire 75,000 more.  

Quoted in Wired magazine, Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and visiting professor at the University of Utah, explained: ‘[Amazon’s] 

need for human labour may fall through time, but for now the growth in demand for their products outstrips any gains from automation.’  If anything, this virus is proving how important uniquely human skills are in times of crisis.  

In Taylor’s review, he recommends that ‘all work should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment’. Moving towards this ideal of ‘good work’ requires a sustained focus on job quality from employers and policymakers.  

This focus is needed at all levels and in every type of role, but the dimensions of job quality are particularly pertinent for those lower status roles, which are often (but not always) less secure as well as lower paid.  

What constitutes ‘good work’? 

The CIPD’s extensive research on job quality has led us to come up with the following definition of good work. It is work that: 

  • is fairly rewarded 
  • gives people the means to securely make a living 
  • gives opportunities to develop skills and a career, and ideally provides a sense of fulfilment 
  • provides a supportive environment with constructive relationships 
  • allows for work-life balance 
  • enables staff to be physically and mentally healthy 
  • gives employees the voice and choice they need to shape their working lives 
  • should be accessible to all. 

If coronavirus is forcing a rethink of how we work, it should also force us as a society to rethink what kinds of jobs we value. High pay does not automatically confer high value. This will become clear as we come through this crisis and are able to see what we have been able to do without. And on the reverse, low pay does not equal low value. Without many of those on lower salaries, mass homeworking would not be possible. The thanks we feel towards those putting themselves at risk to keep others safe at home must not only be remembered, it must also be made tangible through improvements to job quality.  


Katie Jacobs

Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD and a business journalist 

#cipdThoughtLab


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