The measure of a society is found in how it treats its weakest and most helpless citizens, we often say.
But how about the way it treats those looking after its weakest citizens?
New figures show that women labourers make up the majority of zero hour contracts in the United Kingdom. To a large degree this can be explained by how wide spread the use of this form of employment has become in the care sector, a part of the labour market dominated by women.
Research for the Low Pay Commission found that nearly 60 per cent of domiciliary care sector workers are on zero hour contracts. This form of employment requires you to be available for work, but your employer is under no obligation to provide it.
In domiciliary care zero hour contracts have been common for over a decade and is currently the predominant form of employment. It’s often a matter of no choice for workers.
You either accept it, or you don’t have a job.
Receiving the National Minimum Wage for care work is also not guaranteed since employers do not always adequately cover travel time between clients.
Interestingly it seems that it is employers in the voluntary sector (34 per cent) and the public sector (24 per cent) that are more likely to use these contracts, not private sector employers (17 per cent). However private companies that deliver publicly funded services, mainly in health, social care and education, also commonly use them.
Zero hour contracts are not just about businesses trying to make more money and have flexibility on their terms, but charities with mission statements about doing good and the public sector which cares for our parents, our children and our sick.
Austerity is naturally part of the explanation for the rise of these contracts but not the whole story, as mentioned before they have been common in care for over a decade.
The fact that women are the majority of workers on zero hour contracts should however not come as a surprise. Care work, in almost any labour market in the world is performed by an insecure, vulnerable and largely female work force.
Traditionally care was conducted in the home. Based on empathy, love and nurturing, it was seen as a complement to the harsh male world of market competition and money. Care was something women did out of love and because they simply were female. It was their gentle nature in action. It had nothing to do with money, the story went.
When care moved out of the home and into the hospitals, nurseries and retirement homes, this idea remained strong. To take care of others was something one did because one was a good person. Not because one wanted a career or to earn a living.
It is telling that many of the first nurses were nuns who had sworn an oath of poverty.
The logic remains with us today.
Professional nurses, carers and child minders are simply extending their natural family role as nurturers, we believe on some level. Therefore they do not need to be paid very well for doing it. It’s not a real job, at least not in the same way as many men’s jobs. It doesn’t require training or skills in the same way.
“Anyone can do it.”
At least any women.
The problem is that care is a real job. A very important one. Just look at the research into children’s early years: about how brain sensitivity to language, numeracy, social skills and emotional control all peak before the age of four. The care children get during the first four years of their life determines their success more than most other things. How can we know this and at the same time treat child care as a job anyone can do? How can we not make the investments in steady, consistent and well-educated members of staff? We know it will save society money down the line. It costs a lot more to try to make up for what children lose during these early years later, than to simply fix it then.
To look after the elderly and the sick also requires skill and it requires time. The rise of zero hour contracts means that vulnerable and disabled people increasingly receive care in short fragments, sometime just fifteen minutes. It’s not enough to meet basic human needs. And not being able to do a good job puts tremendous stress on the work force in this sector.
Zero hour contracts is a women’s issue. It’s also an issue about what we value in society and why. What is seen as a real job and what is not. Who’s contribution is considered important and who’s considered doing something “anyone can do”.
Should this really be how we treat those who look after our most vulnerable citizens?
And what does that say about us?
Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?: A Story About Women and Economics is published by Portobello Books today (5 March).