Business as usual – no thanks

There should be no going back to “business as usual” says Alison Johnstone.

Once the current crisis subsides, we cannot go back to business as usual. With the cleanest air in years due to reductions in road traffic and flights and an increased awareness of what work can be done from home, we must not return to traffic jams and streets choked with pollution. Having proved that rough sleeping is not inevitable, with so many people with nowhere else to go now made welcome in hotels and other accommodation across our city, we should redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone in Scotland has a home they can call their own.

Most of all, the current crisis has reminded us of the vital importance of our public, private and third sector key workers and exposed as a fallacy that there is any such thing as ‘unskilled’ work.

Just a few months ago the UK Government announced a new post-Brexit points-based migration system, which designated certain occupations as ‘lesser skilled’. Yet, just a few months later, with huge rises in demand for food, cleaning products and other staples, supermarket staff became key workers, a recognition that the hard work of checkout assistants, delivery drivers and many other roles is what prevents shelves running entirely empty.

Care workers have also been undervalued for far too long. With elderly people particularly vulnerable to Coronavirus, staff in care homes and social care staff supporting people in their own homes are exposed to risk, which is why on Saturday I put forward proposals to routinely test all health and social care workers on the frontline, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms.

Even without the added challenge of caring for people in the current situation, caring for our elderly citizens, disabled people, children and others who need care is an enormously skilled and absolutely essential occupation, yet has never been paid or respected as such.

A report from the Fair Work Convention showed that 13% of these staff work more than 50 hours a week and 31% are on zero-hours or non-permanent contracts, with an average hourly wage of less than £10. This hugely undervalues the quality of support they provide and the emotional and physical demands of the work.

And that is before we consider Edinburgh’s tens of thousands unpaid carers. Though topped-up to a higher rate than in the rest of the UK, the value of the Carer’s Allowance is paid at an unacceptably low rate, far less than the wage paid to an employed care and lower than the minimum wage. If it is paid at all – complex and unfair rules mean that many carers receive nothing for the incredible work they do.

The current crisis has shown all occupations play their role in a successful economy and society. As we transition out of the crisis, we need to look at what we can do to ensure that we properly value and fairly reward all workers, including those in voluntary roles like unpaid carers.

To start with, we need to see an end to exploitative and unstable contracts, a higher legal minimum wage, reducing the unacceptable gap between the highest and lowest paid, and a more generous and flexible benefits system for unpaid carers and others doing essential unpaid work. Of course, all of these things could be fixed by a Universal Basic Income, an idea which is growing in popularity and whose time may well have come.