It’s time to value the vital role that care workers play

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Britain used to make things. Men were proud to tell you they were a miner, a steel worker, or built cars. It was work of value. And, generally, well paid, secure and unionised.

Harping back to this golden time is still reflected in our politics. Mainstream parties all promote industrial and manufacturing strategies and of getting Britain back to building things. Labour and SNP all promote them, as does Theresa May, who launched a “proper industrial strategy” in her campaign to become prime minister.

It was feminist economists and social scientists of the 1970s who started the serious debate about what society valued as “proper” work. Feminists argued it was not just the market or skills which determined pay and conditions, or whether you were paid at all, it was the sector itself and type of work you did. Some sectors were seen as an extension of home life or women’s work and therefore badly paid, insecure and worst organised.

We are no longer an economy driven by making things. Manufacturing is, of course, still here and it remains an important sector. And construction, another sector where we make things, remains a high-wage sector, but it is highly sensitive to government policy and the economy.

Job growth is actually coming in other super-sectors, such as care. It is estimated that Scotland will need to recruit an additional 65,000 health and care workers by 2022.

One of the key areas for growth is the Scottish Government’s commitment to childcare. The policy aim is to improve and increase high quality, flexible early learning and childcare which is accessible and affordable for all children and families; to improve outcomes for children, especially those who are more vulnerable or disadvantaged or support parents to work, train or study, especially those who need routes into sustainable employment and out of poverty.

Since August 2014, three andfour-year-old children have been eligible for 600 hours per year (the equivalent of around 16 hours per week during termtime) early learning and childcare. The government aims to double this in the next few years and invest an extra £500 million to fund this policy. The government’s own figures say they need to increase the workforce by at least 20,000 to deliver this policy. To give you some kind of measure, 52,000 young people left Scottish schools last year. We need 65,000 extra workers in the care sector by 2022. And this does not take into account that the government also needs to fund the building of 200 new early years centres.

Even the sketchiest back-of-an-envelope figure tells you this is a strategy to continue to pay young women at the lower end of the pay scales. Jobs there may be, but I am sure feminist economists would remind the Scottish Government that they are not increasing the economic value of the sector.

I have written many times, including in this column, about the mess we have got into trying to deliver free personal care on the cheap, with a workforce of low-paid women with poor terms and conditions.

We have many stories of inexperienced, young women school leavers sent into homes to care for vulnerable people without proper training and induction. The idea, I presume, is that girls instinctively know how to care.

I was giving evidence at the Scottish health committee a few weeks ago. It was pleasing that there was general agreement around the room.

However I was very taken by the statement from Dr Donald Macaskill, the chief executive of Scottish Care. He paraphrased the words of a woman he spoke to a few weeks before the meeting. She was brought up in care and is now a care worker. She said: “This is a pure dead brilliant job because I get to give back. I love my job. I love what I do. It is just a pity I get embarrassed when I go out on a Saturday night and I tell people that I work in a care home and I used to work in home care, and they say, ‘What is that?’ They do not value me. I want a wee bit more money – not a lot, but I want people to value me for what I do.”

This young women makes the point succinctly. No longer is it just feminists arguing that we need to value a whole sector of employment. It is not just about public service delivery, it is a large and growing sector in Scotland, and employs thousands of people.

Of course creating more high value jobs that make things is a good thing. Nobody is arguing against that. But the real question for thousands of young people is: how do we ensure Scottish society values care work. This is the work of the future and it will define the country we live in.

Dave Watson is head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland