Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Working – Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Pandemic, Equal Pay and the Sociologist as Expert

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Hazel Conley, Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, UK

After weeks of being woken by apocalyptic morning radio news of pandemic and impending mass deaths, on the morning of 30th March 2020 came the news that the British Conservative Prime Minister, from his own sick bed, announced that ‘…there really is such thing as Society’. Since Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement of the opposite position in 1987, and the ensuing marginalisation of sociology in politics and in academies, these words should be music to the ears of sociologists. But where are the sociologists in public policy debate in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic?

The same radio programme followed with an article in which two (male) academic experts, one a Nobel Laureate mathematician and the other an epidemiologist, given a high profile in the Covid-19 crisis, put forward their views on which statistical modelling could best predict the future course of the pandemic. The wild statistical variations of death and destruction that have bombarded us on an almost daily basis seem totally at odds with the positivist science on which their reputation is founded, but still they have the ear of policymakers as providing ‘evidence-based’ science. Indeed, it would seem that in the UK, the Prime Minister and other Ministers of the Crown can no longer appear in public unless flanked on each side, 2 metres apart, by scientists.

Only a few months ago it seemed like the most insurmountable crisis the British people had to face was Brexit. It is striking how differently academic experts, even those from a positivist bent, were regarded in that crisis. Experts were shunned if they did not agree – and most of them did not – that Brexit was a good thing, their prognoses dismissed as ‘Project Fear’. It seems odd, then, that calculations of deaths in the pandemic in the order of 250,000 one day, and then recalculated to be more likely to be around 6,000 or 66,000 the next, is not considered to be a fearful use of expert knowledge. Project Fear, it would seem, is a legitimate use of expert knowledge during a pandemic.

The next article on the radio programme featured a (male) medical general practitioner (GP), who had been brought out of retirement to help with the pandemic, and a student nurse (female), who was due to finish a 12 week placement before her graduation. The GP was to work from home during the pandemic, like most other GPs, to conduct consultations remotely. The student nurse had already been given a baptism of fire into the nursing profession at the end of her training, to be followed immediately by indefinite service on the front line of the battle against Covid-19. She has a significantly increased chance of contracting the disease because of the well-publicised lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for front-line healthcare staff. The GP acknowledged that the work of the student nurse and her colleagues allowed him to continue his work at home and away from the danger of infection. There was no expert input to this ‘human interest’ article, and certainly no analysis of the sociological significance of the situation facing actual people rather than statistics.

The British people have adopted the Italian practice of applauding healthcare workers at designated times as a symbol of our collective thanks. It is a nice gesture, but is it enough? As a sociologist of work and employment who specialises in gender equality, the gender pay gap and equal pay, my first thoughts, in relation to the radio article above, were on how much the GP was earning in comparison to the student nurse, considering the risk differentials. Highlighting this anomaly may go some way to answering my question of why there are no sociologists present in the expert debates in relation to public policy. What government would want to be faced with such difficult, sensitive and potentially demotivating questions in relation to front-line healthcare staff in the face of the current crisis? The problem is, of course, that politicians are not interested in these questions when there is no crisis either, unless it is to limit public sector pay increases to below inflation sums for ten years in the name of austerity.

Nurses’ pay is a perennially thorny and embarrassing reminder of gender inequality in the UK’s National Health Service. Their plight is mirrored by most women in the UK economy, including the majority of supermarket staff, who are now also working on the front-line of the pandemic. Supermarket CEOs are busy sending weekly public relations e-mails to millions of consumers lauding their staff, and themselves by association, for feeding the people of the UK during the pandemic. A sociologist would remind these multi-millionaires that their women employees, now on the front-line of the pandemic and always the ‘face’ of their organisations, had launched thousands of equal pay cases just prior to the crisis.

Care work is another example of where low-paid women, often working on zero hours contracts, are at the forefront of risk in the pandemic. The following text message was sent by a manager to one such worker, who contacted me for advice:

Can I please remind you all the masks you have been given are not to be worn into every service users house by yourselves. They are to put on a service user should the[y] start developing any symptoms. It has been brought to attention some carers are wearing them at all times and this is worrying the service users. Any issues or questions about this give me a call. Thank you.

The women who work for this private care firm are non-unionised and have no bargaining power. If the pandemic was a military war, these women would be the ‘cannon fodder’, the dispensable soldiers who form the first line of defence. Their employers provide services to the State via public procurement contracts that are only viable because the terms and conditions of work of the women they employ are well below what the State could pay directly employed care staff on union negotiated rates.

As is the case for all sociological work on inequality, there is an intersectional dimension to the issues raised by the pandemic. In an impassioned article in the Huffington Post, Jenna Norman of the UK Women’s Budget Group highlighted that many care workers are migrant women workers whom, before the pandemic struck, the British government had declared as unskilled, and were planning to bring in measures that would restrict their visas. Now they are crucial ‘key workers’ in the battle against a common enemy. Furthermore, emerging evidence seems to suggest that the virus is proving particularly deadly to those from ethnic minority groups, although it is still unclear whether the link is sociological, cultural or genetic. Medical expertise will be sought for the latter, but it is doubtful that governments will listen to sociological evidence in relation to intersectional discrimination and links to gender, poverty, unbearable living conditions during ‘lockdown’, and access to adequate medical intervention, as an explanation for disproportionate likelihood of infection and mortality.

It will be interesting to see if, unlike Brexit, social science expertise will be valued in the economic aftermath of the pandemic. At the risk of invoking Project Fear, we might ask ourselves, and politicians if they would listen, how many women’s lives are being endangered for the reward of a minimum wage in industries where they are less valued than their male colleagues. The gender pay gap is a mild irritant in the lives of most politicians and employers, but it is one they can currently do without. In the UK, this was easily dealt with when the relatively new duty on employers, including public sector employers, to report their gender pay gap, was quietly postponed for a year in the face of the pandemic. There is a Public Sector Equality Duty in UK legislation, which requires that public authorities must have ‘due regard’ to the equality impact of any decision that they make. It can only be imagined what difficult decisions most public authorities are faced with in the onslaught of a global pandemic that is potentially fatal, particularly to the old and already infirm. But where is the debate on the equality implications of the decisions that are being taken, and where are the equality impact assessments? Equality, as always, is put on the backburner when crises loom, but it never seems to make it to the boil in the good times either.

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