Coronavirus pandemic releases wave of hypocrisy about care home workers paid less than dog-walkers – Michael Sherin

Care workers look after elderly people often because their families are unable to do it (Picture: John Devlin)Care workers look after elderly people often because their families are unable to do it (Picture: John Devlin)
Care workers look after elderly people often because their families are unable to do it (Picture: John Devlin) | JPIMedia
Despite much praise amid the Covid-19 crisis, care workers do not feel valued and many of us are angry about being taken for granted, underpaid and forgotten, writes Michael Sherin.

There’s a great deal of hypocrisy in the language that is being used about the current pandemic. “We’re all in this together.” “The NHS is run on love.” But the one that sticks in this particular craw is that “your work has never been more valued”.

I’m a male care worker. Recently I earned £305.28 for working a 37.5-hour week. I don’t feel valued. I feel humiliated by that. I feel demeaned and, in a single-income household, there’s not a lot of living you can do with it.

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The truth of this is that we have never been more exploited. For that is exactly what is happening with the workforce. What’s at play here is a filthy confluence of class, misogyny and, more recently, race, which people are happy to turn a blind eye to for the sake of convenience and keeping the wages bill down.

I am part of a workforce which is mostly female, working-class and increasingly from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. We are subsidising the sector ultimately. For each woman and man of us is labelled ‘unskilled’, and consequently badly paid. If we were paid the real value of our work, there would be a far worse crisis. But that’s not something that anyone wants to look at, so it’s easier to keep up the exploitation.

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The fact is that the work is anything but unskilled and I challenge anyone to spend, not a day, nor a week, but a month doing the job and then try to refute my claim.

Even when the work is rewarding it’s stressful. It’s physically demanding, emotionally draining, and psychologically challenging.

Stop patronising us

When people talk about carers and their work these days, there comes with it the attitude of an avuncular, benevolent patron bestowing his grace on those ‘below stairs’.

There’s gratitude for the work done and an attitude of ‘what would we do without you?’ But gratitude doesn’t put food on the table – many carers earn less than the national minimum wage – it doesn’t pay bills, rent, mortgages, clothe children or get us to and from work. Money does, so stop patronising us and recognise us in real and tangible ways by paying us properly as befits the work we do.

Currently it’s a dangerous place to work. Carers are dying. Figures released recently from the ONS show that upwards of 120 carers have died so far in the pandemic. These, mostly women, are from some of the most deprived areas in the country.

There are higher death rates among care workers than healthcare workers and while this isn’t about a hierarchy of suffering it’s another fact that’s convenient to ignore.

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Each of these deaths represents a life brought to an early, often painful conclusion, and leaves despair and heartache for those left behind.

But these are largely lives unseen with voices too often unheard. Before the terrible scandal of the neglect in care homes, carers were invisible. High-profile politicians never appear in our workplaces for photo opportunities. Johnson and Hancock do it in hospitals to show how much they supposedly care for the NHS. In fact, Hancock still sports an NHS badge on his lapel. What happened to our CARE badges, I wonder!

Heroes aren’t meant to be difficult

People who are being looked after in care homes are there because their families can’t do it; they find it impossible and that’s understandable. They’re at the ends of their tethers and that’s when we come into the equation. We take up the strain.

The most vulnerable are being looked after by some of the most disenfranchised and expected to make miracles happen for barely a living wage. We’re now being told constantly how valued our work is. Let me throw another perspective on it. Carers are exploited, but by telling us that we are valued maybe you think it makes it easier for us to swallow that particular bitter pill. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most carers I work with don’t buy into the idea that we are heroes, we don’t want to be. To see us as such is to fail to see our humanity, to see us as workers whose labour is undervalued. It stifles opportunity to lay out our case. Heroes are close to saints and they aren’t meant to be difficult or obstreperous. They’re meant to do things out of a sense of duty and to precede quietly.

Well, we don’t feel valued and many of us are angry. And for those of you who don’t want to face the truth, look away now. Part of the reason you can keep your loved ones in homes and have them looked after safely is because the workforce is taken for granted, underpaid and forgotten.

Working-class women are being exploited wholesale and unless we face up to this and look it square in the eye we are never going to find an equitable solution to what is a terrible injustice to a workforce which has and continues to dedicate their lives to the safeguarding of others.

So the next time you visit a mother, father, brother, sister or relative in a home, ask yourself, is it OK that the carers in the home often earn less than dog walkers? If the answer is no, the next question should be, 'What am I going to do about it?’

Michael Sherin is a care worker

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