The Corona-Crisis Reveals There Is No Such Thing As Low-Skilled Labour

by Phil Jones

6 April 2020


In the truest sense of the word, crises are apocalyptic. In the more familiar sense, they are moments of catastrophic destruction. But there is also a lesser known meaning attached to the term: revelation. Amid the ruins left in the wake of a crisis, we find a reality previously unseen or simply ignored.

Take the 2008 financial crash. The collapse of the US housing market revealed a wider financial crisis of over-leveraged banks, simmering away across the globe for decades. Until then, governments and experts either failed to realise just how rotten the financial system had become, or simply ignored it for reasons of greed or expediency.

The ‘corona-crisis’ is revealing a set of all together more inconvenient truths. Yes, we knew our economic system ran on the labour market. But we did not properly know it, at least not in the sense of seeing before our very eyes the devastation its disappearance would provoke. It is now becoming clear that the mass withdrawal of labour required for social distancing is set to cause a global recession unlike any other.

As James Meadway points out, what lies ahead may require an entirely different term than ‘recession’. In the US, the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis predicts a record 50% drop in GDP, while, here in the UK, output may plunge by as much as 15% in the second quarter.

This, for some, provides another surprise: economic output, GDP and growth are, at root, euphemisms for labour at large. When there is no worker to manufacture goods or offer services, gross domestic product drops and growth slows, stops or recedes.

Meanwhile, other bubbles are being burst. Investors are being made brutally aware that stock markets are not free-floating entities after all but very much materially tethered to people’s labour.

Beyond markets and metrics, however, an even more essential truth about work is revealing itself. For decades, we’ve been told we’re individuals, independent islands, responsible only for ourselves. Ironically, a particularly heavy dose of isolation is now showing us our lives are not so separate after all, but are precariously balanced on the labour of others.

In the last two weeks, I’ve not been able to get a plumber out to fix a leak under my sink; nor contact my broadband provider to resolve a network issue. A much-needed eye appointment will have to wait. I can’t eat at my favourite Mexican restaurant or drink in my local pub. Only when this base level of work vanishes, do we see just how much our lives are meshed with the skills and talents of others.

There are some workers, however, so intrinsic to getting us through this crisis they must continue to work and put their lives on the line. While the rest of the economy grinds to torpor, nurses are treating the sick and risking their own health; care workers are looking after the vulnerable; and supermarket staff are making sure we eat.

These workers might get a national round of applause for their efforts, but they don’t get paid nearly enough for their supposedly ‘low skill’ work. In fact, they are paid far below the average UK salary of £30,000, an amount that devalues the skills required and ignores the hazards, psychic as well as physical, that ‘key workers’ must endure.

Indeed, our recent report at Autonomy confirms some pretty grim truths about frontline workers. Around 77% of jobs that place workers at high risk of contracting COVID 19, are done by women.

Even more staggering, women fill 99% of the high-risk positions associated with poverty wages. Again, this might reveal something we already knew: women disproportionately do the unsafe, messy, badly paid work of care and reproduction that keeps society ticking over.

The fact women fill the majority of jobs with a high human contact rate means, in our moment of pandemic, they are also more likely to be sacked, placed on furlough or lose hours.

Whether it be waitresses from restaurants forced to close, teaching assistants, councillors, beauticians, or sex workers left destitute and homeless, women tend to be in positions which rely on face-to-face interactions with others. Men, on the other hand, who continue to dominate ‘professional’ white collar positions, are far more likely to enjoy a few months of work from home.

This ugly revelation is a chance to learn. At the very least, we should remove ‘low skill’ and ‘high skill’ labour from our lexicon, a distinction which is patently sexist. But this is merely linguistic decoration if we do not fundamentally change the ways we distribute work as a society, so that ‘key worker’ is no longer synonymous with ‘poorly paid woman’.

This would mean fundamentally reimagining the way we value work. A significant pay rise for key workers would be a start. Not just as a reward for the efforts of nurses and care workers during the crisis, or because it’s just and fair, but, more importantly, because a new system of value would create the basis for workers and services to thrive.

This might be achieved more comprehensively via wage ratios, which reduce the higher end of income while significantly raising the lower, offering a more thorough way of ironing out inequities in pay.

An easy way to redistribute this work is through a four-day week, which so many scoffed at during the election as a possibility for the NHS. This not only seems common sense now, but essential. Inherently challenging work should be spread across more people with fewer hours.

The fact that it took a society-wide jobs apocalypse to lay bare the truth – that ‘low-skill’ workers are the economy – shows just how engrained our value system is.

Though there is now little argument against these workers receiving the pay, respect and free time they deserve, that does not mean we won’t need to make this argument with force.

A crisis may reveal the old world, and, in its refracted image, a new one of possibility. But this new world won’t simply emerge. It’s up to us to make it happen.


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