During the lockdown in England, there has been a steady stream of cartoons and comments appearing on my mobile telephone and computer – most of them emanating from family members but shared on a wider basis. One of the most recent of these stated the following:
“The lockdown will have demonstrated three things:
Our economy collapses as soon as it stops selling useless stuff to over-indebted people.
It is perfectly possible to greatly reduce pollution.
The lowest paid people in the country are the most essential to its functioning.”
As with most people, I have an interest in the things that are bought and sold and how this effects my economic status. So too, my concern about pollution in our world is deep, and has been for a long time. However, it was the third point in the above comment that particularly took my interest, that is, the statement that, “The lowest paid people in the country are the most essential to its functioning.”
I am quite certain that this is a reference to the value of those persons, for example, hospital nursing staff, cleaners, and Care Home workers, who are performing a vital role in the National Health Service (NHS) and related areas. So too, it would extend to include those who contribute their manual work to our society, for example, those who work in sanitation, refuse collection and labourers in various fields.
There is little doubt in my mind that the reference to the above categories of workers has its roots in the contribution of hospital staff in the worldwide battle against the current Covid-19 pandemic. In England there has been a weekly ritual of persons standing in the streets and handclapping those who work in the NHS. The work done by these persons, as well as the current importance that has attached to their work, has inevitably led to appeals to increase the wages/salaries of these workers once the major effects of the pandemic have been controlled, if not eradicated.
The assumption being made in this appeal is the situation where those “heroes” of the NHS are all being paid at an equal or equivalent rate. It is quite true that hospital workers have been, and continue to be, essential to the functioning of our country, but are these all to be paid at the same rate? Is a nurse more essential than a specialist epidemiologist; is a hospital cleaner more essential than a resident doctor; is a hospital porter more essential than a skilled thoracic surgeon?
A rational analysis would surely lead to the conclusion that many of those in the NHS work in an adjunct capacity to those highly trained in the medical disciplines. As such, these adjunct workers are paid at a lower rate than those whom they assist, prepare the way for, or clean-up after. What is true within the hospital and medical field is also true of other fields of work.
Perhaps the bone of contention in the saying that “The lowest paid people in the country are the most essential to its functioning”, is the use of the suffix ‘most’. This gives a superlative meaning to the following word “essential”, thereby inflating its relative position in the sentence.
There are many whose vital contribution to the upholding and development of our society who are paid at a rate that is low in relation to others. Often these low paid jobs, whilst being important, do not require a high skill component – their value lies in the actual personal physical contribution, often remunerated at a level that is not commensurate with the risk it involves. An example of this would include a member of the armed services, whose life is often on the line in warfare, but who is not duly compensated for the same when such a situation arises.
None of the foregoing is in fact to argue that NHS workers, for example, should not be given a pay increase in consequence of their services during the Covid-19 pandemic. Such an increase would recognise the contemporary value of their work, but it is not to say that such work is more essential than that of persons, usually with specialist qualification and who are highly trained and whom we depend on at all times, for example, general practitioners, dentists, lawyers, skilled trades-peoples and educationists.
It would seem relevant to the above that to have some idea as to what constitutes “low pay” and high pay. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) offers two methods of measuring people’s household disposable incomes: median and mean incomes, both within a range of £0 to £80,000. Interestingly, this range would suggest that those persons earning in excess of £80,000, though s relatively small percentage of the British working population, in terms of disposable income, could be considered as being a privileged, even elitist, segment of the population.
The mean measure of income divides the total income of individuals by the number of individuals. A limitation of using the mean measure is that it can be influenced by just a few individuals with substantially high incomes and, therefore, does not necessarily reflect the standard of living of the “typical” person.
In mitigation of the above reasons, the more usual method of measuring income is to use the “median” measure. This method of measuring disposable household income is the income of what would be the middle person if all incomes in the UK were sorted from poorest to richest. Median income provides a good indication of the standard of living of the “typical” individual in terms of income.
Both methods of measuring income are “equivalised”, that is, they account for the fact that households with more people will need a higher income to achieve the same standard of living as households with fewer members. The ONS calculates that the distribution of equivalised disposable income in the UK is skewed towards lower income people; mean income (£35,900) is £6,300 larger than median income (£29,600).
So, to return to the original statement that, “The lowest paid people in the country are the most essential to its functioning”, would be to suggest that the “most essential” workers in the country are being paid less than the median wage, that is, less that £29,600.
Clearly, this is an unsustainable argument as it would depose, by dint of the salary they earn, most of the UK workers in the professions, many who own and work in private businesses, employees in banking, protective services, public services, local government and politics – just to name a selected few areas of employment – and who are vital cogs in the national economic machinery.
However, the original statement presents us with a moral, not a financial or legal, choice. The statement was most probably written as an emotional, yet realistic, reaction to and appreciation of the urgent and difficult work that was being done at a time of national crisis. Such work deserves public recognition and acclaim, and, in such circumstances, an objective re-assessment of their financial remuneration is one such appropriate reward.
I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.