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What exactly are key workers – and how does our society acknowledge them?

Published May 5th, 2020

Ever since the coronavirus crisis began, we have been talking about what constitutes key workers and essential sectors. It is no secret that it is women who perform the bulk of these functions. If we are truly interested in social change, we need to finally redefine the contributions people make to society.

Key workers. That is the term of the moment. Or, rather, of recent weeks. And probably even of the year. Whatever the case, it is currently becoming very clear what makes up the foundations of our everyday lives and who is responsible for keeping these intact – and, at the other end of the spectrum, what is more or less an added bonus. The basis for our society is formed by people working in healthcare, logistics, education, traffic infrastructure, retail and many more areas: people who have to continue working – and in some cases are working even harder – so that other people can stay at home and avoid putting each other at risk. And even though it is right and proper that we should show these people the appreciation that, needless to say, they have deserved all along, all of this still leaves something of a bitter aftertaste.

Even though we proclaim them “heroes” or “angels” and for a while even treated them to a hearty round of applause from our balconies every evening– this kind of appreciation has always been a good way of keeping recognition at a merely conceptual level. Without giving these heroes what they truly deserve: a fair work structure and fair pay. Contributions that are applauded yet still not paid accordingly or afforded the necessary esteem by society will always remain under the radar.

People, not heroes

As well as everything else, these kind words conceal the fact that these are not heroes endowed with superpowers but merely people going about their important work – people who need security, who have limits, who are not able to perform superhuman feats and should not be somehow required to do so. Especially under the work conditions with which they are frequently forced to contend.

Even though some people might initially get down in the mouth at the notion that the work they do is not “essential”, they should count themselves lucky rather than sinking into self-doubt. After all, in most cases, essential sectors are currently underpaid and understaffed, with high risk exposure and little social prestige. But that is exactly the problem, because sooner or later – understandably enough – no one will want to do these important jobs any more. To change this, we need to reassess the value of work contributions in various areas and, to this end, actually ask ourselves the all-important question: what kind of society do we want to be?

Who are the key workers?

Rarely included among the people keeping the system running, for example, are cleaners in hospitals and care facilities. Although they are also exposed to a high risk, they pull out all the stops every day to ensure that everything functions as well as possible. Nonetheless, they barely get a mention in laudatory public speeches.

Who is visible now and who is not – and why it has taken us until now to shine a spotlight on these functions – is something we should all should think long and hard about. In other words, if we are genuinely interested in social change, we need to take a close look at who key workers are. And for a start, most of these are women. In fact, they account for roughly two thirds of all key workers. For the most part, they pursue what are sometimes termed “women’s professions” – important yet underpaid jobs in care, teaching, cleaning and at supermarket checkouts.

However, women’s “contribution to the crisis effort” goes far beyond paid work – after all, they are also largely responsible for looking after their families and running their households. And for the majority of emotional work in relationships. And, at the time of writing, they are more involved than ever in looking after children while daycare facilities and schools remain shut. According to a survey by the Hans Böckler Foundation, 26 percent of women have already reduced their working time compared with just 16 percent of men.

Exposing errors in the system

Even in this day and age, the “leave it to mother” attitude still prevails – as well as this, the loss of the woman’s income makes less of a hole in many families’ finances because it is far more common for mothers to work part-time than for fathers. These kind of calculations fail to take account of the many hours of unpaid work that they put in every day. And the strain caused by the double work increase is greater still given that, in the fragile system with which we have managed to create some semblance of work-family balance, all forms of help have fallen by the wayside.

There is also the fact that not enough thought was given to the need for a better financial buffer to protect against working time and income lost due to schools and daycare facilities closing. Similarly, there is no real plan indicating how single parents – mothers once again making up the bulk of this group – are supposed to cope with the present situation. And there have also been recent reports that single parents who have lost their jobs on account of the coronavirus are not even entitled to unemployment benefit because, being forced to stay home and look after their children, they are not available to the labour market.

There are errors in the system – and although certainly not deliberate, they were still made anyway. They now show in a whole new and scathing light what has been fundamentally wrong with our society and economy for years and years. For families – but particularly for women too. And, if the projections are true, this means that 75 percent of women currently aged between 35 and 50 might only receive a pension of around 400 euros.

What needs to change right now

To avoid this, a variety of solutions are already on the table: this is because the gender pay gap not only comes about through unequal pay in comparable positions but also through the underpaid “women’s professions”. The work involved in caring for children and elderly people could be paid and the tax-splitting model for married couples done away with or made optional so that couples can decide for themselves which model is best for them. Two thirds of fathers still do not take any parental leave, which leaves a longer gap in women’s CVs – which in turn makes it more difficult for them to rejoin the workforce afterwards. Here, employers should ask themselves what structural changes can be made in their companies to address this imbalance?

It is also time to translate the debate on key workers into actual demands – into esteem, into structural change. Otherwise the term will be rendered meaningless. So if we are now talking about reshaping our world and about the opportunities that are emerging, then we need to talk about money. With a firm focus on women – both here in Germany and all over the world. This is because the situation for women throughout the world has worsened on account of the coronavirus – the UN expects “long-term losses of income” for women and a decline in female employment worldwide. This in turn will take its toll again on equal rights in the workplace, which we urgently need for healthy societies.

We need to talk about money

In order to initiate changes, we also need to examine how we frame things – i.e. in which context they are places. Care work, for instance, is not merely an issue for women but rather for the economy as a whole. This kind of contribution does not merely manifest itself in gainful employment or high profits. Certain professions should not be paid less just because they have a vocation at their core – because they entail a higher idealistic value than a monetary one. And it is also vital to think of security in terms of financial security and education opportunities. The way in which we talk about issues plays a very real part in shaping our reality.

What better time for social transformation than right now, when great decisions are on the table? And here too, we also have to ask about money. Who is paid how much and why? What will we remunerate and what will we tax? How will we do so and why? Who is really secure in our society and why? Who do we constantly forget – and why is it all too easy for us to do so?

It is important to pay very close attention to how money is distributed and to the impact that it has. After all, this will not just tell us what is going wrong but also what might be possible in the future.

Source, article image: Statista/ Bundesagentur für Arbeit, 2019.