Perhaps it’s a renewable energy system, expanded public transport or better-insulated housing. To meet decarbonization targets, our physical infrastructure will need to be completely transformed, but what about our social infrastructure?
Social infrastructure comprises all of the life-sustaining work of care, health and education that underpin economic performance and sustain the workforce and society. Without the efforts of workers in these sectors, whether paid or unpaid, the economy would come to a standstill. It is no surprise they were key workers during the pandemic, continuing their duties to keep us safe.
But the pandemic also taught us what happens when we chronically under invest in social infrastructure: it breaks. Understaffed, overworked and underpaid, many key workers and unpaid carers were struggling to keep afloat. The people most dependent on social infrastructure – women, children, people with disabilities and the elderly – suffered. After years of cuts, the resilience of our social infrastructure was eroded, with deadly consequences.
In the first report from Scotland’s new Just Transition Commission released on 14 July, authors highlighted the critical role social infrastructure must play in delivering decarbonization that can also tackle injustice and inequality.
However carefully planned our transition to a greener future, we must anticipate negative shocks. If the pandemic is anything to go by, we are not prepared. Meaningful protection from these impacts demands a major renewal of Scotland's approach to social infrastructure to enhance resilience and adapt to a climate-changed world.
What would this look like?
Firstly, we need to expand the workforce. Decarbonisation will entail enlarging low carbon sectors like care, health and education, as well as decarbonising carbon-intensive employment. A social infrastructure renewal will therefore entail training and upskilling opportunities to bring more people into the sector. If the Scottish Government is serious about a social infrastructure perspective then it needs to reverse plans to cut 30,000 jobs from the public sector. Investment in both physical and social infrastructure is fundamental to transition, but social infrastructure, as a feminised sector, continues to be systemically undervalued in terms of its economic multiplier potential. While both have positive economic multiplier effects, the Scottish Women’s Budget Group (SWBG) found investing in care creates 2.7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction.
But job creation alone will not safeguard a just transition. Workers in social infrastructure jobs are critically undervalued, and the lowest paid of these workers tend to be women, migrants and ethnic minorities. A renewal must be geared to deliver meaningful, well paid and secure employment. A new deal for social infrastructure workers would deliver a package of condition-enhancing measures to indicate their value to the economy and solidify these sectors as promising career pathways. Raising pay in social care to £15 an hour and putting in place a system of national sectoral collective bargaining would be a good place to start.
The many people doing critical but unpaid care work also need a better deal. The Scottish Government should undertake an appraisal of our current social safety net to ensure it is fit for a just transition future, including considering new social protection measures that target unpaid carers and workers affected by decarbonization efforts.
Investment in the creation of skilled and well-paid jobs in social infrastructure will effectively pay for itself in the long run, helping to stabilise public finances as expanded employment in relevant sectors increase household income and tax revenues and lead to multidimensional positive outcomes for communities.
But as it stands, too much of the money going into these services is being siphoned into profits instead of being reinvested into improving delivery and working conditions. A recent report from the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) revealed privatized care services had lower wages, more complaints about care quality and higher levels of rent extraction than public and non-profit care providers. The upcoming National Care Service Bill must place caring infrastructure firmly in the public sphere, with a robust public investment plan and a human-rights-based delivery approach at the local, regional and national level.
None of this will happen with squeezed budgets and depressed wages. Any hope of success in this agenda demands a reversal of real-term cuts to local authorities who lead delivery of many vital public services. Social infrastructure isn’t simply a cost, but an investment in our future. A care indicator should be included on the National Performance Framework and social infrastructure must be a critical pillar of the National Strategy for Economic Transformation to reflect the fundamental role it plays in enabling all other economic activity.
Social infrastructure is the keystone to a healthier, happier, greener and more productive future. It can’t be done on the cheap. Renewal is a no-brainer.
Dave Moxham (STUC Deputy General Secretary) and Katie Gallogly-Swan (convenor of the Scottish Women's Budget Group)