Key Workers

We recognise that doctors, nurses and other NHS staff as well as teachers, and our emergency services qualify as key workers. Without them we’d all struggle to live the comfortable lives we often take for granted. As a society we owe them a debt of gratitude. They work long hours, often for little pay. It was great to see the whole UK show appreciation for the NHS on Thursday night by clapping and cheering from their doorsteps.

Our key workers find themselves on the frontline in the battle against the spread of COVID-19. NHS staff are putting their lives on the line to save others, and they are doing so while underfunded and ill equipped. The Police force continue to make sure our streets are safe and teachers are still reporting to work in order to care for vulnerable children and those of other key personnel.

Nobody questions their value to society, their work ethic, or contribution.

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The COVID-19 outbreak has however taught us is that there is also another group of key workers. A group that is rarely recognised, and receives little in the way of gratitude. They are the agricultural and food production staff, supermarket shelf stackers, warehouse workers, and delivery drivers. It has become apparent very quickly that these people are as critical to our wellbeing and the smooth running of the country as the emergency services. Without these people, everything comes to a standstill. They are underpaid, often receiving little more than minimum wage, but unlike the policemen and paramedics, they are also underappreciated. Not just by the general public, but also by the British Government.

On February 19th The UK Government released it new points based immigration plan. It highlights the desire to attract ‘the brightest and best’ talent from around the world; people who earn over £25,600 per year. It penalises ‘low skilled’ workers going so far as to suggest that companies should consider automation as an alternative. It makes clear that work visas for the UK should only go to the highly skilled, those with degrees and PHDs. These are the people our Government believe we really need. Ironically a large number of those people are currently working remotely and could probably be doing so from anywhere in the world provided they have internet access.

Meanwhile, right now those ‘low skilled’ individuals are working overtime to ensure food is produced, packaged, delivered and stacked on shelves in supermarkets. Many are on zero hour contracts or flexible engagements paid by the hour. They risk contact with others who might be contagious and do not have the luxury of sitting at home and self-isolating.

Last month our Government dismissed low skilled workers as non-essential and not visa worthy, last week they began referring to them as ‘key workers’. They have been recognised as equal to our doctors, nurses and NHS staff. Their contribution to keeping our country fed is considered essential.

The Migration Observatory revealed that one fifth of the low skilled jobs in the UK is currently filled by an EU migrant:

96,000 work in warehouses

91,000 in factory plants

74,000 in food processing

89,000 are truck and van drivers

Supermarkets alone are recruiting for tens of thousands of warehouse pickers and shelf stackers. Had it not been for European freedom of movement, and the remaining EU nationals in the UK, the labour requirement would be insurmountable. Without European migrants, food would not be produced, supermarket shelves would not be replenished, vans and trucks would be parked in warehouse yards.

It’s time that as a nation we take stock and appreciate the contribution to society made by low skilled workers in general, one fifth of whom have migrated to the UK from Europe and are now working overtime to ensure we all come through one of the most testing periods in our recent history. Hopefully once this is behind us and we return to some sort of normality, the Government will reconsider what is and isn’t essential and what it means to be ‘the brightest and the best’



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