When the inevitable inquiry takes place into what’s happened in care homes in Scotland during this crisis, there will undoubtedly be myriad reasons identified for why the necessary protections were not in place when they were needed. But as one Source Direct subscriber who has had experience of a family member in a care home said to me by way of explanation: “Fundamentally, care staff are mainly female, low-paid, low-status and with limited trade union representation”.
That gets to the heart of it. One can and should talk about over-centralisation, privatisation, ineffective government leadership, lack of preparation, and so forth, but if care home staff had the social make-up of bankers this would have never happened. The most remarkable statistic in this crisis came near the beginning, when the Autonomy think-tank found that out of just over one million workers in the UK working at high-risk during the Covid-19 crisis and earning poverty pay, 98 per cent of those are women. The key workforce in that constituency are social carers.
So when we start talking about creating a better society out of this crisis, let’s start by acknowledging what we are actually dealing with here: modern forms of a centuries-old exploitation of women. This crisis has shown conclusively both that care is fundamental to holding society together – whether it is childcare, the unpaid carer, the home-carer or the care home worker – and that working class women are the ones who still bear the brunt of that work and are still serially under-valued.
The Women’s Budget Group’s Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy published its report last week, and found that the proportion of unpaid care for adults undertaken by women actually increased between 2000 and 2015 in the UK. As home-care services are slashed for thousands in Scotland, many more people are finding that they are trying to juggle unpaid care for family with jobs, and that double-work burden will fall mainly on women.
The essential nature of much of this work is revealed when family can’t or won’t provide unpaid care, as either the state steps in or vulnerable people are abandoned. A report published yesterday by the Glasgow Disability Alliance on how the crisis is affecting its members found that council cuts to home-care services since 16 March meant: “Many disabled people have been left reliant on neighbours, other vulnerable relatives, or simply with no-one to meet intimate personal care needs like meals, medications, support to shower or use the toilet.”
To address this, we need an economy with different priorities, one where care work is seen as the foundation that it is, and thus resources are re-allocated on that basis. The anthropologist David Graeber found in his book ‘Bullshit Jobs: A Theory’ that labour resources are fundamentally misallocated in the current economy towards satisfying those with economic power. ‘Bullshit jobs’ is all the work that is being done that is either pointless or pernicious, like “flunkies” to satisfy CEOs or “task-masters” who create box-ticking exercises for employees which can actually hinder their productivity. Graeber’s research suggests bullshit jobs could make up as much as 40 per cent of the workforce in wealthy countries. Many may have just realised their job is bullshit while in lockdown, as nothing changes without it. Meanwhile, “non-bullshit jobs” – care, most critically – are either serially under-valued or not paid at all.
Graeber argues that leftist thought has been overly preoccupied with the production process, and not thought enough about maintenance, which care is fundamental to.
“You ask any Marxist about labour and labour-value, they always immediately go to production,” he says. “Well, here’s a cup. Somebody has to make the cup, it’s true. But we make a cup once, and we wash it ten thousand times, right? That labour just completely disappears in most of these accounts. Most work isn’t about producing things, it’s about keeping them the same, it’s about maintaining them, taking care of them, but also taking care of people, taking care of plants and animals.”
We don’t need to create a care economy, because it already exists. What we need to do is to nourish care by giving it financial value and ensure that any care-gaps that currently exist are filled and equally valued. If we aren’t going to nourish the care economy now, we never will.
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