May 29, 2020
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50 Years After Equal Pay Act, Women On The Coronavirus Frontline Are Undervalued And Underpaid
When Tabitha, 50, began to show symptoms of Coronavirus in late March, she immediately called the elderly residential care home in North Wales where she works night shifts to say she couldn’t come in.
“They told me that I had to show up,” she said. “They said I was pretending to be sick.”
Tabitha felt like she had no choice – she was on a zero-hours contract, which meant she had no safety net to fall back on. Only days after being sent home for being too sick to work, she was unable to eat or breathe properly.
Although she has been repeatedly denied a test, she told HuffPost UK that she was certain that she caught coronavirus from the care home. “We didn’t have any kind of protection. Then one day nearly everyone fell sick at the same time.”
Tabitha eventually recovered and returned to work. For the month and a half that she was away, she received around £150 of so-called “Covid sick pay” to cover all her bills, and had to rely on food donations to survive.
“I was so angry,” she said. “I tried asking for more but I was told if you ask for too much or insist, you might just be removed.”
The pandemic has hit care homes and care workers hard, with the latest figures stating that there have been 12,526 deaths of care home residents. The real number is likely much higher.
Tabitha told HuffPost UK she didn’t want people to think her “miserable” experience was an isolated case. “I’m sharing my experience on behalf of the silent carer, the one who didn’t have to have the opportunity to share their story with you.”
Meanwhile the government has been criticised for not prioritising care workers, particularly in relation to the provision of testing and PPE. Up to April 20, 131 people working in social care have died of coronavirus – 86 of them women.
Eight out of 10 care workers are women, with many in the sector at barely minimum wage levels, working long hours, on zero-hours contracts.Undervaluing care work is therefore undervaluing the work of women, said Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the non-profit Women’s Budget Group.
“We are now seeing the vital role of carers who every day are putting themselves at risk in high-exposure roles to keep the most vulnerable people safe,” she told HuffPost UK. “They are doing all this on poverty wages and insecure employment.”
Fifty years have passed, as of Friday. since the Equal Pay Act gave Women the legal right to equal pay.
Yet Stephenson says that, for carers, “little has changed”.
“For far too long their work has been undervalued, underfunded and underpaid,” she added.
Karolina Gerlich, executive director of The Care Workers Charity, said care work is “definitely a gendered issue”.
“We’re talking about jobs that were invisible for millennia,” she told HuffPost UK. “Because care work was traditionally carried out by women for free, society gives it no monetary value.”
A professional carer of 12 years, she said this – coupled with the fact that most patients consist of the elderly and people with disabilities – has led to “chronic underfunding” by a government that considers care work a place “where money goes to die”. She said care workers had already been struggling before the outbreak.
Prior to falling sick, Tabitha was paid £8 an hour for a 12-hour overnight shift. She says the conditions and pay left her feeling “like an animal”.
“Most people don’t realise what this Job is like,” she said. “Everyone looks down at you. People shout at you while you’re working. They step on you. They treat you like you have no feelings, like a Robot.”
She said the undervaluing of care work left many feeling “worthless”. “People are being denied their humanity.”Since March, Gerlich’s charity had seen a 1,000% increase in applications from care workers seeking help and funding. Coronavirus has “pushed them into poverty and debt”.
“Things have got much worse,” she said. “People are ringing up saying they won’t be able to feed their children next week – they won’t be able to pay their bills.”
A study released on Tuesday by the Fawcett Society showed an overwhelming majority of the UK public want carers to be better paid and better valued.
The survey of 2,079 adults found 72% agreed that care workers are underpaid, and three quarters say they should get paid at least the living wage of £9.30 per hour (£10.75 in London) for their work.
Tabitha, who spent in total 29 days sick with coronavirus, said she hopes public support will convince the government to provide proper pay and protection for care workers across the country.
On Thursday, she and the charity Citizens UK launched a petition appealing for health secretary Matt Hancock to give care workers and all social care sector staff a “real living wage” of £9.30 an hour and £10.75 an hour in London.
“When care workers are underpaid and mistreated, they’re being told they’re useless and worthless,” she said.
Katherine Chapman, director of the Living Wage Foundation, said: “A lot has changed 50 years on from the Equal Pay Act but unfortunately women are still more likely to be in low paid jobs, such as social care, compared to men.
“We’ve seen the incredible dedication key workers have shown in keeping this country running, the majority of whom are women. From supermarket workers to nurses and carers, their work has been essential but if we want to live up to the aspirations and intentions of the Equal Pay Act, we could start by ensuring our key workers are rewarded with a real Living Wage.”
Gill Furniss, shadow minister for women and equalities, said: “We have seen that care workers, more than 80% of whom are women, are on the frontline against coronavirus. The years of underfunding in social care means that they are often paid little more than the minimum wage which is a scandal for the skilled care they provide.
“A properly funded social care system could pay higher wages which would be a significant advance for gender equality.”
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