Who’s “skilled”, who’s “unskilled”?

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2020 - 7:55 Author: Katy Dollar
care worker

Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced the government wants to “encourage people with good talent” and “reduce the number of people coming to the UK with low skills”.

Rightly, this has provoked a flurry of articles and social media content arguing that the government’s characterisation of care work, which is very badly paid, is ignorant and offensive.

Under the proposed point system, people wishing to move to Britain will need 70 points to be eligible. Migrants must have spoken English (10 points) and a job offer from an approved sponsor (20 points) at the skill grade of A-level or above (20 points) and which pays at least £25,600 a year (20 points) or £20,480 for shortage occupations or those which require a PhD in a STEM subject (20 points).

Nadia Whittome MP raised questions in parliament, making the point that the definition of care work as low skilled has primarily come from terrible pay in the industry.

“When I was a care worker my colleagues taught me to help sick, elderly and disabled people live full lives. This government calls care work ‘low skilled’ because it has made it low paid.”

Millions of people work in care work (1.62 million reported in October 2019). It is estimated that 7.8% of the roles in adult social care are vacant, equal to approximately 122,000 vacancies at any time. In the sector 24% of workers are on zero-hours contracts. Jobs are low paid and low status, despite their obvious importance.

Care workers need sensitivity, tactfulness, patience, honesty, the ability to keep information confidential and assess and react to people quickly. There are specific skills and knowledge relating to personal, social, medical and domestic care roles. Workers must be understanding, treating people with dignity and empowerment under difficult situations.

Most roles require provision of basic medical care. Care workers must also have appropriate knowledge of often changing policy and legislation.

This is skilled work. Why is it paid so badly and seen as unskilled?

As in health care, about 80 per cent of all jobs in adult social care are done by women; the proportion in direct care and support-providing jobs is higher, at 85 to 95 per cent. Why can work requiring an array of knowledge and skills be designated “unskilled”? Because it is a female workforce doing work associated in our society with femininity.

Capitalism separated social reproduction (the job of housework, bringing up children, running a home) from that of economic production (what we normally see as work). Social reproduction largely fell on women, was carried out in the domestic sphere and was compensated for by love and a socially reinforced sense of virtue.

Economic production largely fell on men, was carried out in public life and was compensated for by money. These were not separate but equal areas of activity; the importance of social reproduction was obscured by its physical separation from public life and was relegated to a lesser position. In a world where money is the primary source of power, people and skills undeserving of payment were bound to be secondary.

Women’s work – cleaning, cooking and caring – when done as waged work is underpaid because of a pervasive ideology that these things, however important for the continuation of human life, aren’t very valuable. “Skilled workers” like engineers, crane operators, plumbers must be trained in their manly trades, but women are assumed, by virtue of our gender, to know how to look after people.

Assumed to be for free in the sphere of social reproduction, these skills embody unpaid women’s work, not the paid work of professors or trainers.

Wages are set by struggle. Bosses will set wages as low as they can get away with. Workers must collectively fight to push them up. The lack of status for “women’s work” has combined with forty years of defeat and acquiescence by the labour movement to leave wages at a very low level.

Unions must recruit and organise in the care sector. It is work that performs an essential social function and makes bosses huge profits. We must take the industrial power of these workers seriously.

Wages in the sector will rise, if only to roughly the meagre level of equivalent skilled “male” work. The difference between £20,480 and £25,600 makes an enormous difference in an individual’s life. The struggle for wages is worth more than the pay rise, as Karl Kautsky explained back in the day:

“But the self-respect of the proletarians increases and also the respect that other classes of society give them… they are beginning to expect more from themselves… becoming more sensitive towards every slight and every oppression…

“All the improvements, which some hope and others fear will make the workers contented, must always be less than the demands of the latter, which are the natural result of their moral elevation”.

The fight for higher wages shows us our power and importance and opens up the possibility to fight for more than just a pay rise.

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