‘Essential workers’ or just those whose health we’re willing to sacrifice for our own?

This post was one (like most my posts) that I intended to post way back when the Covid-9 outbreak first began in Britain but it’s been sitting in my drafts all this time.

I guess by now you’ve seen all that I could possible write about on social media.

For those of you who don’t know here’s a quick summary. Basically, a few weeks before the lockdown, and when the Conservative party were in the midst of developing their post-Brexit points-based immigration system , the Home Secretary Priti Patel exclaimed that those earning less than £25,000 annually were in low-skilled jobs and therefore not worthy of entering the UK.The irony is that the majority of those in ‘professional’, ‘skilled’ role don’t even earn that much when beginning their careers. Luckily, the coronavirus epidemic didn’t wait long to prove her wrong and those same people once labelled unskilled suddenly came to be deemed ‘essential’ to the functioning of society -nurses and other emergency services staff, cleaners and retail assistants, all fell within this ‘low-skilled’ category in terms of income. How funny that those very same people once being threatened told they could no longer remain in the UK and constantly treated as outsiders, those same people denied visa’s due to their lack of desirable skills under the new points based immigration system, are now having their visas extended so that can ‘focus on fighting coronavirus‘. I guess this would be a victory if the circumstances under which the visa extensions were granted weren’t so twisted and selfish.

The reality is that most of those now labelled ‘essential workers’ do not have a choice but to work. Not only because they are not offered the opportunity to work from home or be furloughed but because they genuinely cannot afford to do so. I worked at my local Tesco since 2016 and only left in early March since I am now done with uni and working full time- I guess I got super lucky as I made it out just before the whole corona situation. That’s not the case for a my colleagues and friends though. Having spoken to various people from my old workplace over the last few weeks, its clear that most of those on the frontline are extremely worried about their health (and rightly so!) but feel helpless about their situation, unable to change it. In some ways these workers face a double-penalty (triple if you count the low-pay and physically draining nature of the work) in that not only are they more prone to physical illness due to greater exposure to members of the public and those already infected, but the sheer fear and panic surrounding the whole epidemic is also taking a toll on their mental health.

It seems whether in the middle of a health crisis or normal day-to-life, the same people in society are thrown under the bus over and over, left to fend for themselves whether this means working 40+ hours across two jobs to make ends meet, or risking their own health on the frontline. Especially with the introduction of the points-based immigration system we have seen just how undervalued those in low-skilled labour are which this makes me question- is it actually that these individuals are finally being given the recognition they deserve or is it all just a show to keep them on the front line because these are the individuals deemed the most expendable in society? If the former is true, then we certainly have a funny way of showing our appreciation.

Back in October, when I was still working at my local supermarket, I wrote a post on jobs and value wherein I discussed how undervalued and disregarded customer service and retail roles were. I was recently reminded of this by a reader’s comment and, well, I guess it aged really well given the current circumstances.

I saw a post on twitter not too long ago arguing that our key workers are not so much essential workers as they are prisoners of the capitalist system. And to an extent I agree. I just feel like our current economic/political system is really being put to the test and the flaws coming to the surface. On the one hand, we need these workers to keep the country running and so cannot send them all home purely because of how the society we live in functions but on the other, it is unfair that only individuals working in certain sectors should bear the brunt and sacrifice their own health for the whole country. It is clear from what I have written in this post and the government action required to ensure businesses stay afloat, that the class hierarchy and the distribution of wealth in a capitalist society is only favourable for some and not entirely sustainable in the face of national crises. That the good health and safety of those with power always comes at the expense of the poor and those on the margins of society who seem to only be given full admission into the inner circles when they put their lives on the line.

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