One unavoidable theme running throughout the current pandemic is the important role of key workers in keeping our communities running and healthy. This includes paid work, but also the unseen work that is rarely highlighted, but equally important, such as the work that we put into looking after our families, our friends, neighbours and even the work that we have to put into ourselves to keep going. I am interested on how we can build upon some of these common themes to start challenging the deeply ingrained ideas of what skilled and important work is.
How can we turn well meaning platitudes like clapping NHS and Care workers into an action that fights for the wider rights of all paid and unpaid workers whose roles are currently undervalued economically and socially? How can we destroy the idea that the salary of the “work” we do is representative of not only our self worth, but our worth to society as a whole? If there is one thing that we are seeing now it is that those who are the bottom end of the scale that are facing the most risk and also keeping everything moving forward. It has always been this way, but now it is stark and in our faces.
As an examples cleaners go through my workplace almost unnoticed and the job they do is an afterthought only noticed when it’s not been done. Very rarely are they seen as part of the team, working after others have left and yet their work is vital. Whether it’s our office spaces, toilets, schoolss, factories or the operating theatres before the “professionals” come in and complete surgery. Without cleaners none of this could happen, and yet they remain some of the most exploited workers in the UK with the dangers of their job largely not being talked about. They also save us one of our most limited and priceless resources – Time. Without diligent cleaners our societies would be a whole lot more dangerous and the current situation is perfect for driving this point home with those that have previously dismissed it.
My personal experience of being a private sector health and social care worker was working for minimum wage and being treated like shit while the managers/owners creamed off our labour. A particular example of this is a care home owner removing free staff meals for people working 12 hour days on minimum wage as he thought that some staff were having a bit of extra food, and then he would cross the road back to his mansion in one of the most affluent areas of Bristol. The contrast in wealth, power, and privilege was undeniable, but acceptable to many.
I recently had a conversation where we discussed if the current situation would change our view of common colds and flu, and in particular if people would now be more likely to actually take time off rather than bringing it into an environment where it can be spread. This would be better for a healthy society, but to do this we would have to drastically change how people are treated when they are sick and demand proper pay for sickness. Alongside this there is much work to be done on challenging the idea of “hard work” and “battling through” as being virtues that are desirable as this only serves to benefit exploitative workplaces and governments. When you are on SSP/Zero hour contracts it means you work through sickness, or return to work early which has long lasting health affects and results in our early deaths. I currently get sick pay for the first time in my life which has drastically reduced my fear of getting sick, but how wrong is it that we should ever be scared that becoming sick means that we won’t be able to afford to live? This is the fear that we work under every single day and this is what keeps capital running into every greater profits. How did we ever let this happen, and how do we reverse it?
Working class people are always turned against each other and for example often stray into arguing our worth over people who aren’t “economically active/on benefits”, parents bringing up children, and other low paid workers. How often have you heard the “They pay more in Aldi” or “Cleaners earn more than me.” This always pains me and is the sort of thought that we need to start challenging. Our anger does not need to be directed at other low paid workers, the fact is that all of us are being exploited and we need to build bridges across these sectors and communities to give us the best change of pushing for change. It is equally important for people that are currently called “keyworkers” to not slip into the habit of using this to stand over other working class people as we all have a role to play.
We need to have these discussions with those around us and start to push the anger upwards towards the owners and structures that currently control our lives. What are your bosses doing right now? What are the wealth creators and hedge funds doing? Do we need them, or are they creating more complications with their detached meddling? Do we really need them to dictate the jobs that we do every day? Maybe its time to start asking them for proof of the work they are doing and justifying their sick days?
You can guarantee that while governments and business’s show false platitudes towards us that in the back of their mind they will be considering on how to exact austerity round two, which marginalised group they can demonise next to justify it and how they will use all their power to continue extracting our labour at the expanse of bodies and minds. Indeed they are already profiting from the current situation.
So then it is important for us to prepare for this and to start making plans on how we build resistance so that we can go on the attack this time rather than constantly being on the defensive.