It might appear to be a nice filler amongst the doom and gloom coronavirus coverage, but an article from BBC News headlined ‘Coronavirus: ‘I never thought I’d be so proud to sell bread and butter’’ left something of an unpleasant taste in my mouth. The article interviews Laura McLellan, who works as a checkout manager in a Tesco superstore in Leith; it is her words that form part of the headline.
Her positivity and resilience is genuinely heart-warming at a time like this, and it is understandable that the BBC might wish to use this content as part of a cheerful news story. But her sense of new-found pride is continually emphasised throughout the piece. The fact that this pride is new goes totally unquestioned. There need not be an analytical dissection of why it is only now that Laura feels pride in her work, but if anything, the article promotes this fact as if it has no significance. Almost as if selling bread and butter genuinely was not something to be proud of before.
We are living through times where people who have held wildly undervalued jobs for decades suddenly find themselves valourised as key workers. People who stack supermarket shelves, who deliver our groceries, who work in our care homes have often seen themselves under-appreciated in our society. A care worker writing in The Guardian in 2018 lamented how so many dismissed her as ‘just a carer’ and told her that with her brains she should find a more ‘professional’ job. Her treatment implies an uncomfortable truth about how we have viewed people who fill such key occupations; just because the jobs may require few academic qualifications, it does not mean that those who undertake them are somehow less valuable.
Indeed, if we’re talking about value, who could be more valuable than those who keep our supermarkets running, our elderly looked after, our streets clean and get our post to us on time, all the while being paid far beneath the median wage for this country? A recent analysis of key worker wages has shown how many of these occupations yield far below average pay, despite the fact that so many of them involve unsociable hours, highly physical work and often a lot of abuse as part of the job.
Of course, not all the people we classify as key workers earn low wages. Doctors’ salaries are frequently well above the median income for the UK. But you would never see a headline boasting of a doctor’s new-found pride in their essential work. Of course, it is easy to see the direct link between a vocation like medicine and actively helping and caring for others. But could our long-established respect for the medical profession stem from the fact that doctors are well compensated for their efforts? Is it possible that we have made a connection between good pay and work that is valued?
It is only right that we are seeing media outlets of all stripes call for an increase in low paid key workers’ wages; it is good to know that the issue of poverty pay affecting large swathes of our essential workforce is being discussed at last. But this has come far too late. The attitudes which negatively affect our poorer paid essential workers have been entrenching themselves across society for many years and will be hard to overthrow.
Consider this article in The Guardian from 2018, discussing social mobility. It laments the stalling of social mobility, noting that many of us, regardless of education, will end up in the same or similar employment positions as our parents. It is definitely a worthy article, which makes several valid points about the inequality of opportunity that continues to rage across society. But in bemoaning a lack of social mobility, it unquestioningly puts the paradigm of social mobility on a pedestal, without discussing its nuances.
Social mobility implies the chance to move away from certain types of work and ways of living. And in doing that, it sometimes frames these types of work as bad things. Social mobility is all about the cleaner’s son going on to become a banker, the shopkeeper’s daughter becoming a top executive. While these possibilities should never be closed off to anyone, the idea of socially mobile transitions often implies that the start position lacks value compared to the desired end.
This should not be the case. Those being lauded as ‘key workers’ now have always been key workers. They have always been important, and have kept our society running behind the scenes. We have failed to realise the intrinsic value of this work for too long, and have not allowed individuals undertaking these jobs to feel the pride they ought to. Without them, society would collapse.
And it’s not just low-paid ‘key workers’ who should be valued more, but all low-paid workers. Even though many of our waiters, catering assistants, hairdressers and nursery nurses may not be working at this point in time, these are still people we heavily rely on in society, though they are often compensated with far less than they deserve. We are all missing our outings to restaurants; despairing of our overlong hair; parents are feeling frazzled by toddler tantrums. We need to respect all low-paid workers, and we must stop talking about their jobs as though they must be moved on from. These are vocations for life if those undertaking them should so choose. People should be enabled to feel pride in whatever they do.
So as we see society change immeasurably, it’s also time for an attitude change. We need to respect all types of work, compensate them fairly, and make all workers feel valued. Everyone contributes to society - not just the wealthy and prosperous. We are telling people that we’re all in this together; let’s start acting like it too.