Autonomy has today published findings that show that three quarters of the people working in jobs most at risk of contracting Covid-19 are women. That might seem obvious to many people given that women make up 77% of the NHS workforce and the vast majority of social care workers, as well as other high risk jobs such as childcare. This crisis has certainly laid bare the lack of progress in dismantling occupational segregation in the UK.
These findings are a wakeup call for the government to finally prioritise social care
But the issue is not only that women and girls are funnelled into caring roles (whether paid or unpaid), it is that we don’t value those jobs when they get there. A third of so-called high risk jobs identified in this report are paid poverty wages - below the national living wage - and women occupy a staggering 98% of them. That puts women at even greater risk during this crisis because they have fewer resources with which to navigate it (they simply cannot afford to stop working and could quickly face rent arrears and potential eviction), and it puts the rest of us at risk too.
Decades of underinvestment and the willful ignorance with which mainstream political parties evade the social care crisis in order to circumvent any liability at the ballot box, have made these sectors fragile. Put simply: they don’t care enough about care. That was one of the main drivers for creating a party with a laser-like focus on women - to help tip the balance of priorities in ways that benefit all of us. The average pay of social care workers is just £8.10 per hour and a quarter of staff are now on zero-hours contracts, so vital parts of their job - such as travelling to clients’ homes or writing up notes - are not paid at all. The result is that there are 122,000 vacancies in social care and more to come (the turnover rate was 40% before Coronavirus).
Layering a crisis on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic onto the existing caring crisis is a recipe for disaster. We have stripped away the resilience of the very people that we now rely on. As we clapped for our carers this week, I couldn’t help but remember that the government recently dismissed many of them as ‘unskilled’ in its new immigration plan.
Things are changing though, and not least in the hearts and minds of people who are having to rely on these services to new and greater extents. Nurseries and schools are closed except to key workers, social care workers are now the only people that some of our loved ones can interact with, and we are relying on the NHS to save lives. In that context, everyone is discovering just how skilled and valuable this work is. Conversations that once felt intractable - about the need to invest public money in social infrastructure if we want to build a just and humane society - seem even more urgent and possible.
The Women’s Equality Party is calling for urgent cash for social care, not just to fill the immediate funding gap of £1.5 billion in 2020/21, but to fund whatever is needed for councils and independent services to increase carers pay to at least the national living wage, protect staff, improve working conditions, and help fill the 120,000 social care vacancies that would relieve pressure on current staff and prevent further care homes from closing when we most need them.
This crisis has laid bare the gaps in our overstretched services. But it has also shown overwhelming public support and gratitude for our carers - and people’s willingness to help their communities.
Healing from COVID-19 as a nation must mean learning from it and designing a better future. This government must publish and put to parliament a plan for long-term social care funding and reform - this must happen as a matter of urgency. No more reviews, committees or cross-party commissions. It’s time for them to say exactly how they will fix the social care crisis and get it done.
Mandu Reid, Leader of the Women's Equality Party