Recognising the UK’s ‘invisible’ workers: why COVID19 might trigger a more mixed economy
The strange and painful situation we’re currently living through has opened the UK’s eyes to a once hidden truth.
Among the most essential workers in our economy – indeed, some of them currently holding the country together with a blend of bravery and sticky tape – are those that have largely been taken for granted.
The grocery store staff – shelf stackers, porters and checkout teams – the refuse collectors, the teachers and carers, the fruit pickers, the cleaners, the delivery drivers and of course our precious nurses and doctors.
Even within this broad group there’s a rough distinction. While definitely underappreciated, members of the medical profession and those in education have at least quite reasonably commanded their fair share of media coverage and discussion in Westminster.
Most of that scrutiny has focused on issues of low pay, difficult working conditions and a lack of resources; all questions that have come under a stark spotlight in recent weeks.
Indeed, there are lists circulating social media this week of every MP that less than two years ago, voted against the possibility of nurses getting a pay rise.
But what we’ve rarely heard about, outside of the kind of content Guardian journalist John Harris has produced since the 2016 Brexit referendum with his Anywhere But Westminster interview series, is ‘normal’ people in ‘normal’ jobs.
‘Normal’ people don’t make the news, acknowledged in this recent Twitter post.
The Tweet, recycled more than 150,000 times and – to date – liked by almost 700,000 users implies the news agenda has a very narrow line of sight when it has distinguished the workers generally deemed to be of some importance.
Indeed, for years before the financial crash of 2008 it was drummed into the British population that the success of our economy relied heavily – almost exclusively – on the financial services sector centred mostly in the City of London.
Commentators have documented the gradual shift over decades from heavy manufacturing to a services-based economy with a variety of views and perspectives.
The tech economy also enjoys inflated coverage and debate. Its success stories loom large in the business press and general media and its acolytes point to the agility, personal freedom and flexibility for workers. Of course when tech platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo overlap into stories of exploitation and unregulated growth, the media quickly jumps on the worry bandwagon surrounding the emergence of the zero-hours or ‘gig’ economy.
In fact every key industry sector including retail, utilities, government and professional services has its own dedicated reporters covering the beat for our national newspapers and broadcasters.
Meanwhile Home Secretary Priti Patel set the premise for much-needed discussion last month when she suggested future visas for entry to the UK would not be available for the “low-skilled” and established a salary benchmark that would exclude trainee nurses and doctors.
Such discussion feels like a world away in the current climate but should not be forgotten. It would be nice to think that one outcome of the UK living in lockdown will be that the invisible or ignored economy manages to retain the respect and visibility it currently has. These people are in the headlines now and deservedly so.
Anyone leaving their homes and places of relative safety to go out to work right now because the rest of us depend on them putting themselves at risk, should no longer be taken for granted.
More and more of us are finding ourselves saying a less hurried and more genuine ‘thank you’ to office cleaners and the masked men and women on supermarket checkouts or filling our shelves with newly delivered fresh produce throughout the day.
The role of the City should absolutely be more widely understood and appreciated. At the same time no banker or trader ever got people across the nation standing on doorsteps clapping for them on a weekly basis. That kind of celebration is reserved for unsung heroes.
A good start would be a general acknowledgement that Britain doesn’t have a single or easily-defined economy.
We’re surviving right now because we have a mixed economy. We should start again after all this by opening our eyes and looking at all the pieces.