“Build, build, build”. This is what was printed in bold capitals on Boris Johnson’s lectern as he announced his economic recovery plan on the 30th June. Following the economic fallout of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the £5 billion pledge aims to “build back better” by investing in construction of homes and infrastructure.
However, it failed to promise any support for the care sector. Ignoring such a crucial – and female dominated – industry denies women equal access to economic recovery jobs. Furthermore, it impacts the working women who rely on care workers, whether working in nurseries or care homes, to have the freedom to work. In focussing on construction and building back economic infrastructure, whilst paying no attention to social infrastructure, this policy may bulldoze the equal opportunity women have worked for for decades.
Johnson says he wants to “fix our NHS”. Only last month it was announced that student nurses who had continued their paid placements throughout the pandemic were having their contracts terminated earlier than previously thought. Having spent their final year on the frontlines, these nurses are now jobless and income-less. With 90% of the nursing labour body being female, this has a grossly disproportionate impact on the working women of the UK.
Meanwhile, the construction industry is nearly 90% male. Creating jobs in this industry whilst cutting jobs in the care industry will dramatically knock female employment, increasing the gender wage gap.
This pandemic has shown how much we rely on the skills of care workers. Whether it’s in hospitals, care homes or throughout the general community, these crucial skills are still undervalued just as much as they are underpaid.
Earlier this year, Home Secretary Priti Patel deemed anyone with a salary under £25,000 as ‘unskilled’. Yet the starting salaries of social carers, nurses, and midwives all sit below that threshold. Very few people would deem any of these professions ‘unskilled’ – so why are they paid in a manner that would suggest so? It is clear to see that the care sector is already underfunded, so to neglect it further could be disastrous.
For example, Johnson’s announcement included a pledge to eradicate mental health dormitories. Mental health facilities are frequently ignored in the hospital funding discourse, so the announcement of a conscious drive to better them is promising. What the plan fails to consider, however, is that the NHS’s mental health services are already dangerously understaffed. The government has failed to realise that it will be impossible to replace dormitories without sufficient staff to ensure the personal care each patient requires. This only reflects a grosser pattern of neglect for the care sector.
There have been criticisms of the scale of the plan – Keir Starmer pointed out that what has been announced amounts to less than £100 per person. I believe that, for women, they have been allocated even less than that. In fact, in neglecting the care industry, and allowing so many redundancies in that sector, the government are actively taking away many women’s income.
The Sutton Trust has warned that one third of nurseries in deprived areas may face closure due to the pandemic, with 42% having to make redundancies, unless they receive financial support from the government.
Women make up 98% of early educators. Across the EU it has even been found that female employment has grown due to increasing opportunities in this sector. The shrinking of such a female dominated industry will inevitably see female employment take a large loss. Furthermore, it is not only the staff who will suffer as a result. Nurseries are essential for working mothers, and with limited options for childcare, their closure will force many women out of work.
We cannot ignore the implications of the disproportionate effect on deprived areas. Far less likely to be able to work remotely, working class mothers have an even more desperate need for childcare whilst they are out at work. With no other options for childcare, one parent (typically the mother) will have to put aside their career in the interest of looking after their children. Women will be pulled from their careers and pushed back into their homes; thus returning to the standards of the 1950s where a women’s primary function was to stay home.
From the beginning of the pandemic, women have suffered disproportionately as a result of the economic fallout. Hospitality, retail and beauty – all female dominated sectors – were some of the first businesses to make large redundancies, with some even going under. Whilst ideally these areas would receive more funding and be able to survive as well, the closures of such are an understandable and precedented consequence of the economic fallout. On the other hand, the shrinking of the care industry, in the face of a pandemic where care workers have been required more than ever before, is totally bizarre.
Johnson talks of a new ‘opportunity guarantee’, but where are these opportunities for women? With them forced out of work, the longest lasting structure that the plan will ‘build, build, build’ will be the gender pay gap. Women were already at economic disadvantage before the pandemic hit, but this recovery plan could be the final nail in the coffin of equal opportunity.
Words by Isabella Ward