Put care at the heart of working life

How do we care for the most vulnerable in our society and keep the economy going?

Caring for an elderly relative


The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane has argued this week that gender pay reporting should be extended to SMEs with over 30 employees if we really want to tackle the UK’s gender pay gap problem. Given that SMEs make up the bulk of employers in the UK, this seems a fair comment.

Interestingly, it is often the larger SMEs that seem most behind on things like flexible working. This is crucial because a progressive view on embedding a flexible culture is crucial to tackling the gender pay gap, given that family life does not really fit into squeezed slivers of time in the evening. Children have a habit of getting sick, stressing out about exams and generally being human. Work kind of needs to get with the programme.

And childcare is just the tip of the iceberg. I was at an event on Monday night on elder care. It covered everything from robots to attitudes to immigration, given a lot of care work is done by immigrants and quite a lot of the European ones are a bit peeved, to say the least, about Brexit. The event highlighted the conundrum of older people being more likely to vote Leave and the fact that much of their care is currently carried out by European Union citizens. Be careful what you wish for…

Could we attract more British people into the care sector, people asked. Well, only by improving the dreadful pay and conditions endured by many care workers, who are mainly, of course, women. The thing is austerity has meant local authority budgets have been slashed to the bone. People in the care sector are on their knees. I see it in my own home – my partner works in the care sector and was on stress leave over the summer due to the sheer weight of cases he has to deal with. A member of my family is in psychiatric care.The system is absolutely failing her. It has had huge chunks taken out of it. Staff are totally demoralised and can’t cope with the workload. That is the reality of austerity and the likelihood is that the economic hit that is coming our way soon is likely to make things worse, no matter how much puff about new cash injections are pushed out to the media by the Government in the pre-election period. None of it comes anywhere near replacing the amount taken out of the system in the last decade.

Instead, employers are going to have to take on more of the safety net role, mainly because it is in their interests to do so – burnout is a massive issue just now, often related to workload, but it is the combination of a heavy workload and intense pressure at home that means many people are teetering on the edge or falling over it. Employers, however, are facing great uncertainty, whether economic or due to technology changes, and you can’t rely on employers to always do the right thing. Just as with everything, there are good employers and bad ones – employment rights are key and we may be watering them down in the near future.

In the meantime, the care crisis is going to put more of the burden on families, most particularly women, and right now those women are often stretched to the max. The event heard that technology could help with practical issues such as lifting [at some expense], but it could not replace the emotional support elderly people need. It is not the silver bullet.

Who cares?

is going to care for the elderly then if there is no quick, cheap technological fix and we want an Australian-style points system which would exclude the carer workforce [deemed low skilled]? Will it be unpaid women as usual? The truth is that we need women in the workplace to pay the tax that provides care services, schools, the NHS and so much more. And the skills shortages in many sectors are only likely to get worse with the turn towards nationalism. Moreover, families need women to work to pay the rent and for food, even if benefits cuts mean many who work still struggle to put food on the table.

So how do we confront these pressures? A radical overhaul of our attitudes to the care sector seems to be a good place to start, as is a complete rethink of how we work so that work and life fit together. We can’t tweak our way out of the hole we are in. Care is at the heart of what it means to be human, yet it has been consistently undervalued because it has been done free by women.

The gender pay gap is essentially about fairness and choice. It is simply not fair that women are expected to carry the burden for most of this, for a system that is not designed for human beings, that is not built with care at the centre, that is making people stressed and miserable. It’s a system that is simply not fit for purpose and it’s a shameful legacy to leave to the next generation.

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