Journalist & documentary filmmaker
Updated: November 9th 2020
Originally published on April 16th 2020
Many of us are fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the Covid-19 lockdown pandemic, but not everyone has that luxury. For key workers on the health crisis has a very different meaning.
The government requires all key workers to keep the country going even when there is a strict lockdown. That list of jobs includes social support and care workers, who assist the most vulnerable members of society: the elderly, those with disabilities or mental health issues, domestic violence victims, sex workers and so on. These are among the at-risk groups who will bear the brunt of the coronavirus crisis.
In this extraordinary context, we spoke to support workers, care workers and those with experience in the sector.
“Care work has zero glamour, it is almost an invisible job. That’s quite a tragedy.”
When Marina Kemp’s brother had a near-fatal snowboarding accident that left him in a minimally conscious state, Kemp found herself in the shoes of care workers. As an unpaid carer for five years, Kemp realised that these workers are our forgotten heroes. “When you get to know care workers, you come to love them, because they are treating people you love and who are vulnerable with such tenderness, and such care. Care work has zero glamour, it is almost an invisible job. That’s quite a tragedy,” she said.
Care workers form 1.52 million jobs in the social care sector: 78% in the independent sector, 7% in local authorities and 9% working for direct payment recipients (not including NHS employees). The care workforce—83% of which is female—is essential to the wellbeing of society, particularly amidst a global pandemic. But the government’s treatment of the social care sector does not have a great track record.
Earlier this year, funding cuts led to care home closures and critics lambasted the multi-billion pound shortfall that is putting vulnerable people at risk. This cut coincided with the new points-based immigration system: low-skilled overseas workers earning less than £25,600 per year will no longer be allowed entry to the UK from January 1, 2021. This includes care workers, whose average hourly salary in March 2019 was £8.10—roughly £17,000 per year. Ironically, the government has extended the visas of thousands of foreign NHS workers so they can remain in the UK to help fight coronavirus.
But the treatment of social care workers during the crisis is abysmal. The BBC reported that a leaked letter, written by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said that protective equipment handling for care workers has been “shambolic”. These professions rely on close human contact, which means care and support workers are more at risk of contracting or passing on the disease. In July, Amnesty International research concluded that the UK had the second highest rate of Covid-19 deaths among health and social care workers in the world, with more than 540 lives lost. An investigation into these deaths by medical examiners is underway.
So what is it really like for them to work during the crisis?
The pressure is real. David Thomson, a social worker and mental health officer in Edinburgh, finds it difficult to give the necessary level of support to domestic violence victims, juvenile victims of crime and offenders in the community that he works with. “These people have been through a lot of trauma, so we’re looking at opportunities to make them feel better. This is very difficult to do during the lockdown…we endeavour to see them in person, obviously as long as they and we don’t have any symptoms,” he said.
For Thomson, working during the lockdown is “a bit of a pressure cooker situation.”
Meanwhile, domestic violence incidents are increasing under the lockdown. The domestic abuse charity Refuge has reported a 120% increase in calls to its helpline. “There was an incident where we had to get the police involved. One of the people we work with was really distressed and had been assaulted, and the perpetrator was still there. Usually people would feel more comfortable to leave, but now they are being told to stay in the house, and might be worried about getting ill if they don’t. Domestic violence is a real concern,” said Thomson.
Thomson is working remotely, as much as he can, but his list of tasks now includes other essential services that have been shut down. For example, food banks are being forced to close due to a lack of donations and volunteers, which is a big concern for Thomson. “Most people we work with are in significant poverty and often rely on food banks, so we’re trying to make sure that they can have access to food,” he said. For Thomson, working during the lockdown is “a bit of a pressure cooker situation. Thankfully most people seem to be managing at the minute.”
“The whole point of outreach is to meet women we wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise, and meet them on the streets at work, so we can give them direct support…getting hold of them is going to be very tricky.”
Like Thomson, Daniella Russo, an outreach worker who supports sex workers, is able to work from home. But she finds it frustrating. “The way I normally do my job has definitely changed, for safety reasons of course. It was decided that we’d need to work from home, over the telephone,” she said. Beyond this frustration, Russo is concerned about the people she works for. “The whole point of outreach is to meet women we wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise, and meet them on the streets at work, so we can give them direct support. A lot of them don’t have a proper place to sleep or secure visas, let alone access to the internet or a phone, so getting hold of them is going to be very tricky,” she said.
Despite these tough conditions, Russo is determined to provide support. “The pandemic is particularly going to affect women and trans women who work on the street for an income. They are already in a precarious position in society, and they have seen a drastic reduction in clients and work due to the virus outbreak. We need to be there for them,” she said.
His only fear is contracting the virus, but not for personal reasons. His mechanism to cope with this fear? A “business as usual” attitude.
Autism support worker Arthur Brown shares Russo’s sentiment. The 29-year-old spends his working day helping high-risk and vulnerable people with daily tasks, from cleaning and hygiene to financial administration. “Some people we work with have profound disabilities so they desperately need our support,” said Brown.
His only fear is contracting the virus, but not for personal reasons. “It would really be a disaster if the virus got into the service,” he said. His mechanism to cope with this fear? A “business as usual” attitude.“I’m happy that I’m still working, I need to anyway. Things haven’t changed that much, I’ve been enjoying it. It’s good to be busy and still connect with people,” he said.
While we are hearing plenty about our courageous doctors and nurses—and rightly so—there is little news about care workers, many of whom are quietly working long hours on low wages in high-risk environments.
“People know that these services have kept this country going. There is a general recognition of that fact around the country, you can feel a change in mood.”
Thomson believes that care work will now be recognised despite “the cutting back of NHS services, social work and social care” during austerity years. “People know that these services have kept this country going. There is a general recognition of that fact around the country, you can feel a change in mood. This needs to be sustained once this crisis is finished, and resources need to be put into things.” Yet, his “worry is that it will be forgotten about,” after the pandemic is over.
“There’s probably an inherent snobbery in people’s valuation of it as a job, because you don’t have to be as qualified and it’s not the same rigorous process as becoming a doctor.”
Kemp isn’t convinced. Although she believes that the country would “fall apart” without care workers. “The crisis in its current form is about hospitals—mostly it’s about the NHS—so I don’t know if it will bring to light the heroic work being done by carers.”
While the NHS is undoubtedly under the spotlight, it doesn’t justify the lack of recognition given to care workers. “There’s probably an inherent snobbery in people’s valuation of it as a job, because you don’t have to be as qualified and it’s not the same rigorous process as becoming a doctor,” said Kemp.
Care workers across the sector are hoping for higher wages, increased funding and more recognition after the crisis. In Scotland, there’s already positive news regarding care worker salaries. Meanwhile in the UK, Rishi Sunak is under pressure to raise care workers’ wages to see them through the second wave. A cross-party coalition, including five former health ministers, claimed that 800,000 social care workers earn less than the ‘real living wage’ of £9.30 an hour or £1.75 an hour in London.
“We don’t get paid enough for what we do—it’s shocking. There are so many skills needed. We basically act as doctors, psychological support, financial administrators, helpers and cleaners.”
“There’s news that the [UK] government is investing £1.6 billion into care and social care [as part of the Covid-19 fund]. It’s stupid that it took the crisis for them to realise how important it is…” said Brown. But this is still a positive sign for him as low wages put off potential employees, who are expected to excel in varied skills. “We don’t get paid enough for what we do—it’s shocking. We basically act as doctors, psychological support, financial administrators, helpers and cleaners. It’s like support workers’ sensitivity is being exploited. It’s true that I would do this job voluntarily because I really care for people. But it’s not fair that people are giving a lot of their lives caring for others and then struggling with money,” he said.
“The government needs to move away from this Big Business idea—this is about people’s lives.”
For Niall O’Conghaile, a support worker in a Manchester housing project for recovering addicts, it’s not just about the skills. “Most of these jobs are 12 or 14-hour shifts. It’s intense work.” Especially for minimum wage.
Thomson agrees and adds that carers need to be recognised for this “extremely skilled and hard work”. He said, “At the lower levels, the pay is extremely poor, it’s a travesty. The government needs to fund the sector properly, as it all comes from the health and social care budget. The government needs to move away from this Big Business idea—this is about people’s lives.”
On the 16th of April, the UK government addressed these concerns and released the Covid-19 action plan for adult social care. Changes have since been made, such as weekly testing for residential care staff.
To create a sustainable future for the care industry, societal and governmental perception of care work must change. “I don’t know what could change that [perception], apart from people coming to a close situation where they are in contact with those people,” said Kemp. Time will tell, if we will fight for the invisible workforce of carers post-Corona, as valiantly as they fought for our lives during this global health crisis.
Illustration by Patrik Antczak for Welcome To The Jungle
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Journalist & documentary filmmaker