13 May 2020
One of the most heartening responses to the coronavirus pandemic has been the outpouring of appreciation for NHS staff, care workers and other essential workers, shown most vividly by loud clapping and cheering every Thursday evening.
The essential labour of not only our health and social care workers, but also shop and delivery workers, bank and IT staff, refuse collectors, local authority and energy supply workers, public transport workers, teachers, food producers, growers and pickers, makers of drugs, PPE and medical equipment, emergency service workers and scientific researchers, to name just some vital occupations, has become much more apparent to us all. The government has permitted these workers’ children to continue to attend school so that their parents can be available for essential work, and we have seen that this work has been at a tragic cost for many, with deaths from COVID-19 of doctors, nurses, care workers and bus drivers reported regularly. Moreover, BAME people – healthcare workers in particular – appear to be experiencing a disproportionate impact of the coronavirus – that is, death rates seem to be higher among BAME doctors and nurses. London has also seen a high number of deaths of bus drivers, many of whom are BAME.
While essential occupations are many and varied, they have some important features that we highlight here from an equality perspective. Based on an analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics of 112 occupations that we identified as fitting the definition of critical sectors named by the government where children of workers will get priority schooling, we show that essential occupations:
Women represent three in five workers (60%) deemed as essential or critical. It is not possible to be precise about exactly who is a key worker in this crisis, given that the government definitions are vague, and the numbers for some occupational categories include both those who are doing essential work and others who are not (for example, the occupational classification ‘sales and retail assistants’ does not distinguish the sector of employment, so includes supermarket and food shop workers, as well as those in shops that are currently closed). However the important point is that while women account for less than half (47%) of all workers across the economy, they are over-represented in the roles essential for our survival in this pandemic. Table 2 [add link] shows that women account for 89% of nurses, 81% of nursing auxiliaries and assistants, and 57% of paramedics. Only one category of health professionals – medical practitioners – is not female dominated, with 47% women. Similarly 84% of the 760,000 care workers and home care workers are women, sales and retail assistants (66%) and check-out operators (76%), all in the frontline during this pandemic. Of course many male workers are also carrying out risky and essential jobs at the moment, for example, bus and coach drivers, of whom 92% are men, van drivers (94%), postal workers and couriers (77%), ambulance staff (71%) and refuse collectors.
The great majority of essential occupations are low paid. Of the occupations we identified as critical – which also included managers in healthcare, transport and logistics, and education – four-fifths (80%) were below the median pay for all occupations of £28,098 (April 2019). This means that both female and male workers in the jobs considered to be essential for our survival during this pandemic receive below average pay. However women are more likely to be in the lowest paid roles. Women are found in large majorities in all the 10 lowest paid occupations on our critical jobs list (see Table 3 [add link]), and of all the 18 occupations paying below £20,000, men only outnumber women in 6 of these (including street cleaners, packers and bottlers and horticulture). Care workers and home carers had an annual average gross pay of £19,104 with only a little more for senior care workers at £20,316 per year. But of the 10 highest paying essential occupations, we find that eight are dominated by men. The patterns of low pay for caring and female-dominated work of course are a major contributor to the persistent gender pay gap, currently 17% for all employees, including full-time and part-time workers.
Ethnic minority workers are over-represented among those in essential occupations, particularly in health and care roles. While non-white ethnic groups account for 13% of workers across all sectors, they represent 21% of those in healthcare professions, 18% in transport, driving and operative roles, 15% in caring and personal service occupations, and 15% in sales occupations. In part due to these sectoral differences in patterns of employment, some ethnic minority groups experience pay gaps compared to White British employees. Specifically those in Black African, Caribbean or Black British ethnic groups earned on average 5% to 10% less than their White British counterparts, while Chinese and Indian ethnic groups earned more on average than White British workers.
It is well known that the health service, as well as many other essential services, such as social care, food production and agriculture, relies on the work of migrant workers, and the effect of Brexit on recruitment in these areas was already a major concern before the coronavirus pandemic. It was notable that Prime Minister Boris Johnson singled out two nurses from New Zealand and Portugal for special thanks on his release from hospital having survived coronavirus. Furthermore, a video featuring an anti-racist poem, You Clap for Me Now by Darren James Smith, highlighted the crucial role of migrant workers in the current pandemic, and went viral worldwide. The data support these anecdotal accounts of the reliance of the health service on non-UK born staff. Two-fifths (40%) of medical practitioners in England and Wales were born outside of the UK at the time of the 2011 Census, as were 31% of pharmacists, 24% of nurses and 20% of care workers. These figures vary widely across the UK, with London and other large cities heavily reliant on recruitment of medical staff from overseas.
All this matters because in normal times, the work of women, ethnic minorities and migrant workers is consistently undervalued and devalued, seen in gender and ethnic pay gaps noted above, as well as in rhetoric and policy about reducing overall levels of migration, with migrants commonly presented as a burden on the economy. After the crisis is over, the challenge will be to capitalise on the collective rejoicing of the ‘unsung heroes’ in critical occupations in order to improve those workers’ employment terms and conditions including pay commensurate to their skills and contribution to society. Who will lead on accomplishing this goal? Our recent research on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in nursing and midwifery shows just how vital the major unions and professional organisations – Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of Midwives – are in tackling some of the longstanding EDI issues in healthcare workplaces including bullying and harassment, low pay and undervaluing, lack of work-life-balance and race discrimination. Both organisations are on the case and will be pressing the government to confront the grave implications of the nursing staff shortage, which is inextricably linked to these EDI issues.
The Trades Union Congress has called for an increase in the minimum wage to £10 per hour, which would provide a pay rise to an estimated 38 per cent of key workers who are currently paid less than £10 per hour (compared to 31% of those who are not key workers), benefitting up to 3.7 million key workers. This would be a vital first step in turning the applause into concrete and meaningful appreciation.
 A full list of occupations included in our analysis is available here [CRED - valuing essential work supporting tables [PDF 530KB]]
 Data provided at 2-digit SOC level, from the ONS Annual Population survey 2018, created on 07/10/19 by Office for National Statistics.
 Gill Kirton and Cécile Guillaume, Unions defending and promoting nursing and midwifery: workplace challenges, activity and strategies, December 2019, report available on request