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Fix the Disconnect: Essential Workers and Economic Value

Writing by Grace Smith. Illustration from Unsplash.

Every Thursday at 8 p.m. during the first national lockdown, millions of British people stood on their doorsteps and clapped for the NHS and its workers. The mainstream press hailed NHS workers as heroes who made sacrifices that still seem wholly impossible to repay. Frontline workers during the pandemic were deemed “essential”, universally praised and celebrated, even given Vogue covers. And yet, despite the very real strength, resilience, sacrifice and selflessness of Britain’s frontline workers, these are precisely the workers that have been systematically undermined economically for decades, in terms of measures of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and productivity, as well as wages.

In traditional economic theory, economic value is predominantly based on GDP and labour productivity. ‘Productivity’ refers to economic output, meaning a product or service produced by hours of labour, and is used to determine wages. However, by these measures, “essential” work has remained systematically undervalued because of the difficulty of valuing this work, including education and care work, in economic terms. The 1975 Icelandic women’s strike is a powerful example of attempts to gain full recognition of essential work’s value to both the economy and society, here focusing on women’s work. On 24 October 1975, 90% of Icelandic women participated in the strike to protest lower wages for women and unfair employment practices. They did not perform any labour, including the many women employed in factories and as teachers, or do any housework or childcare. No matter the economic value they had been prescribed, these pioneering women were determined to demonstrate the importance of their work, and equal pay legislation was quickly passed the next year.

Society could not function without these jobs, and yet they remain amongst the lowest-paid and least secure in the nation. Many essential workers, including factory employees, are forced to accept exploitative zero-hour contracts, without regular hours or incomes. Delivery drivers are often categorised as self-employed, depriving them of workers’ rights including sick or holiday pay. Research has found that half of England’s care workers, over 500,000 people, are paid less than the real Living Wage.1 Additionally, data shows that over 40% of the UK’s childcare workers, who should be receiving the minimum wage, are paid below it.2 As a consequence of the economic undervaluing of these societally necessary jobs, government spending and investment in these sectors is inadequate and often declining. For example, public investment in adult social care declined by over 8% from 2011 to 2016 in England, and there is a projected shortage of nearly 350,000 workers in this sector by 2028 without further investment.3

The pandemic has, of course, increased the public’s awareness of the true significance of these essential jobs. However, despite joining in with the praise for these workers, the government has made no efforts to reconsider the economic undervaluing of these sectors or give them sufficient wage increases. In fact, the Department of Health and Social Care proposed a 1% pay rise for NHS nurses, a frankly insulting offer that would translate to a pitiful additional £3.50 a week. Even worse, when adjusted for inflation, this would in fact be a pay cut, let alone a meagre increase. The offer is made even more worthless in light of the fact that the government has imposed continual cuts and pay freezes throughout a decade of austerity. If the government has recognised these workers as essential, why are they not treated as such? It has been proven time and time again that investment into public services, especially social care, childcare and education, contribute significantly to individuals’ development as well as to economic growth as a whole. Investing in people, in workers and their household income, in their essential work caring for others, is not a waste of time, but rather something beneficial for the economy and for society as a whole. It is time to revolutionise how we measure economic growth and take the real needs of the people into account.

It is important to note that Black people and other ethnic minorities are overrepresented in frontline jobs. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black people and other people of colour is in part because of this overrepresentation. However, wider systemic racism also comes into play, having led to people of colour often being employed in the lowest-paid and most insecure jobs. Therefore, when the government refuses to adequately pay or protect essential workers, they are actively exacerbating existing structural inequalities for Black people and other people of colour. This is not an isolated issue, as shown by the similar experience of workers in the U.S. Black Americans are the most likely group to be part of the essential workforce and they are also disproportionately affected by COVID and mass unemployment. In addition, immigrants make up a significant proportion of our healthcare workers and in the care sector, almost 1 in 7 of NHS staff. These facts about who makes up our essential workforce further emphasise the importance of a just recognition of their value to society.

Additionally, the undervaluing of essential jobs is a feminist issue. The vast majority of care work, both paid and unpaid, is done by women. Over 90% of England’s childcare workers are women, and 85% of the UK’s social care workers.4 These jobs involve low pay, long hours and poor working conditions, despite paid care work contributing £45 billion to Britain’s economy. Many care workers are struggling financially, with a shocking 36% relying on social security benefits.5 As Icelandic women pointed out in 1975, there is a significant overlap in essential work and women’s work, and patriarchal influence no doubt plays a part in its undervaluing. Black and minority ethnic women are more likely to have a heavier burden of care responsibilities and have been disproportionately affected by cuts to public services and social security. Therefore, the cyclical nature of the undervaluing of essential workers and the continuing injustices on the basis of gender and race is made strikingly clear.

It has been unsurprising and yet disturbing to see how quickly many of those who clapped for the NHS or praised essential workers have gone back to deriding workers as ‘burger-flippers’ or ‘shelf-stackers’, have spoken about ‘unskilled’ work or have argued pay rises are not feasible. Where would this country be without our healthcare staff and essential workers? Where would the world be? Regardless of the pandemic, has the time not already come to bring traditional methods of economic measurement in line with real needs? This disconnect is damaging, even cruel, and it does not make economic sense. The government’s failure to address this disconnect has revealed the deep hypocrisy of the Tory party. Applause does not put food on the table; applause is nowhere near the demonstration of gratitude that a proper wage reflecting the societal value of essential jobs would be. The pandemic has emphasised who and what is necessary to our society, and it is time to connect the economy to the needs of the people.


1. Joe Dromey & Dean Hochlaf, IPPR, Fair care: A workforce strategy for social care, (2018).

2. Sarah O’Connor, ‘It is time to make amends to the low-paid essential worker’, The Financial Times,, (April 2020).

3. Clare Coffey et al., Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis, Oxfam,, (2020).

4. Silvia Galandini & Ieuan Ferrer, ‘Make Care Count: Unpaid and Underpaid Care Work Across Britain’, Oxfam, (2020).

5. Silvia Galandini & Ieuan Ferrer, ‘Make Care Count: Unpaid and Underpaid Care Work Across Britain’, Oxfam, (2020).

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