Luke explores the transformation of ‘unskilled’ workers to key workers and how its time we gave them the respect, security and power they deserve. He writes that for too long these workers have provided the foundation for our way of life whilst their wealthy employers attract the praise and profits. But now is the time to change. The coronavirus has presented us with an opportunity to rebuild our economy and society, creating one in which key workers are provided with the financial security and power they more than deserve. A Basic Income can provide the basis for this brave new world, where we all benefit from the security and mental wellbeing of our key workers and one another.
Luke Brotherdale Smith – Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland
Unskilled workers or key workers? Life savers or scroungers? Billionaires or poverty-enforcers? Wealth creation or exploitation?
Everyday we are seeing the green shoots of a new world. Carers giving loving support to the elderly, nurses thanking taxi-drivers who freely drive the sick to hospital and entire nations stopping to applaud the life-savers up and down the country.
The covid-19 crisis has opened our eyes and flipped our perceptions of what really matters upside down and back to front. Work once seen as undesirable, ‘unskilled’, the obligation of immigrants or the dirty work of the poor, is now finally being recognised as the basis for all of our lives.
For so long we have deified the entrepreneurs, the technological innovators, the financial investors, the car designers – the billionaires. And yet, this entire time unnoticed, without complaint and without just recognition ‘unskilled’ workers have been carrying these people all the way to the bank.
Ask yourself. What would Richard Branson be if his cabin crew and pilots refused to fly? What would Jeff Bezos be if Amazon warehouse staff refused to package parcels? And where would we all be without people keeping the supermarkets stacked, driving the bus to get us to work, doctors fixing us up when we’re sick, cleaners ensuring hospitals are safe for doctors and patients alike and of course utility workers keeping the lights on. People that keep everything running, crisis or not.
And how are these key workers rewarded for carrying our society on their shoulders? With poverty-wages and being over-worked, all at the same time as the profits they create are flown over to the Cayman Islands (other tax-havens are available).
NHS workers dedicate their lives to their work, devoting their energies to other people and their wellbeing. And we thank them by providing a lack of equipment, inducing huge stress and surrounding them with a crumbling institution. More and more areas of the NHS are getting privatised every year. Nurses, doctors, cleaners and admin staff desperately put out the fires whilst private companies smuggle as much money out as possible. It’s the same in our supermarkets. Hours spent working, stacking, checking out, re-stocking, stacking again. Minimum wage pay while the owners extract millions. It’s the same with delivery drivers. Utility workers. Transport workers. You name it.
But their importance has never been clearer than today, in these unprecedented times. Without this foundation of key workers, and without their employees these men we all hold in such esteem, untouchable and untaxable, are nothing. Without his workers and factories built from the money made by them, what is Jeff Bezos other than another warehouse packer?
It isn’t Richard Branson and his private jets nor Mike Ashley and those massive Sports Direct mugs which provide the foundation for our economy. It’s the key workers up and down the UK who generate the value we need – and the wealth billionaires extract.
For how long now has the promise been made that technological advancement will bring cheaper food, less hours worked, reduced stress and more time? And yet people are working longer for less pay, trapped in insecure work due to exploitative zero-hours contracts, leading to insecurity, anxiety, stress, depression and poverty – all whilst these technological advancements have made the rich richer.
Is that how key workers ought to be treated? Are they fairly rewarded for the value they bring to all of our lives? Can we honestly say the status quo is improving people’s lives and making us happier?
There has been a systematic upwards flow of money in this country, towards the wealthy and powerful, dug out from the foundations of our society and economy.
Working people across the world have systematically had their wages, protections and services stripped away. All of this value and wealth has been swallowed up by billionaires who spend it on nonsense like heated toilet seats.
At the very foundation of our economy is a growing chasm, and the Covid-19 crisis has shone a torch directly at it.
Wages aren’t paying enough to keep people out of poverty. Carers and cleaners can’t look after us and keep us safe when they can’t feed themselves and their families.
Workers’ rights have been systematically stripped allowing mass exploitation. Delivery drivers on zero-hours contracts can’t continue to supply us with what we need if they’re exhausted from working fourteen-hour days.
Cuts and austerity have completely shattered our public services and social security. Doctors and nurses can’t provide us with the life-saving treatment we need if the waiting queues are too long or their hospitals cannot afford the necessary equipment.
We surely cannot believe that cutting wages, increasing hours and inducing huge stress and anxiety isn’t going to have an effect on human beings. We can’t go on selling off the NHS, cutting benefits and undervaluing key workers without the rest of the country being greatly impacted.
We’ve seen through this crisis who it is that we all really rely on, and it’s not just time to hand them a medal, badge or give them a clap. It’s time to build our economy around them, ensuring security, support, respect and decency – enabled not through virtue signalling or symbolic gestures, but through fair wages and power.
Now is the time for change.
We should probably plug the hole at the base of our society and economy. Stop eroding the foundations we rely upon and instead reinforce them and provide a solid and secure base for us all to thrive upon. This starts by giving key workers the wealth and power they deserve.
No longer can cleaners and delivery drivers be subject to the stress, exhaustion and the insulting pay that zero-hours contracts offer. Instead such insecure work should be banned, and a generous wage be legally enforced to ensure their important work is rewarded.
No longer should supermarket workers be paid minimum wage whilst billionaire shareholders like BlackRock cypher off profits and invest tens of billions into fossil fuel industries. Instead power needs to be devolved within companies, giving a voice to the workers who actually keep the shelves stacked and ensure we all have access to food (and loo roll!).
No longer can our public services exist for private firms to profit from or be seen as expendable corners to cut in order to reduce public spending. Instead the NHS should be completely taken into public ownership (bye bye Richard) and funded comprehensively, with doctors and nurses and all staff empowered to shape their working environment – not suited blokes in Whitehall.
And never again can we allow social security to mutate into something like Universal Credit, where stress and anxiety greet those who are in the most vulnerable and precarious situations. Instead, a Basic Income providing universal and unconditional support for all will reinforce and plug all gaps within our crumbling economic foundation.
Imagine that. Just imagine – that is how we choose to respond to this nightmare. We reward our key workers for the effort and sacrifices they have made throughout this pandemic, with a universal Basic Income. A pledge of no more. No more will the cleaner be unable to put food on the table, or the nurse struggle to afford their kids’ uniform or the driver forced to stay with their abusive partner. A Basic Income embodies a pledge that all of our key workers will have respect and dignity. With a Basic Income these key workers will be provided with the security and safety they more than deserve. And what happens when our supermarket workers, cleaners, nurses, carers and bus-drivers are provided with security? We all benefit from it, because they are the very foundations on which all lives and ways of life are built upon and depend.
For many, this Covid-19 crisis has opened their eyes to what really matters and who really matters. When our entire country shuts down, exactly who is it we depend on? Who is it providing us with food and health and water and care. I don’t see Mike Ashley or Richard Branson cleaning our hospital floors and toilets preventing the spread of a deadly virus. I see them trying to exploit the situation for their own pockets, just as they exploit their employees for the same ends. It’s therefore time we all demand key workers are given this recognition and security, and are never ignored or taken for granted again. And in doing so, we will re-solidify and nourish the very foundations and earth on which all our lives grow.