Thursday’s Clap For Our Carers felt different. Just hours earlier, the government was forced to make a U-turn on its savage surcharge for migrant NHS and care workers, so each strike of the hands was like beating a drum of victory. The hope was that the government was finally beginning to understand the value of care and the hypocrisy of its treatment of so-called essential workers.
The surcharge requires overseas workers (social care workers, cleaners, porters and health workers) to pay £400 per year to access the very care that they are providing, even though – as many commentators failed to notice – these workers are already paying for their healthcare through taxation. For those of us who had been campaigning for this policy change in peacetime on the basis that it discriminated against some of the lowest paid workers, most of whom are women, the victory felt bitter sweet.
The abolition of the surcharge for migrant workers is right, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that most care workers would not qualify for a visa under the government’s new immmigration scheme because they simply don’t earn enough.
Listening to Jeremy Hunt’s epiphany on BBC Radio 4 this week that “Given the sacrifices that we’ve seen during the coronavirus pandemic, low-paid frontline health and care workers need to be thought about differently,” I was reminded of the Spiderman of Paris. You will no doubt recall the viral footage of an undocumented migrant who risked his life to scale a building in order to rescue a four-year-old who was dangling from the balcony. Mamoudou Gassama’s heroic act earned him a sit-down with the President, a medal, fast-tracked citizenship and a job offer with the city’s fire department. In response, the Deputy President of the far-right Front National, said: “If you tell me, we’ll make that one official because of his act of bravery and we’ll expel all the others, I’ll sign up to that.”
Here’s the thing, care work is heroic with or without coronavirus. It requires extraordinary patience, skill and thoughtfulness to provide personal, emotional and medical support to people with often complex needs. But although the work itself is rewarding, workers are consistently taken for granted, under valued, or exploited by a grossly unfair system. Most care workers are on zero-hours contracts so don’t qualify for sick pay, and the average remuneration is just £7.89 per hour – less than most supermarkets pay. The combination of cuts to national spending and increased privatisation, means many care workers struggle to make ends meet. The abolition of the surcharge for migrant workers is right, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that most care workers would not qualify for a visa under the government’s new immmigration scheme because they simply don’t earn enough.
Today, the Women’s Equality Party is organising the first social distance march. Hundreds of people from across the UK will be marching (or rolling) a mile for carers and for the people who receive care, as part of their daily exercise or at home – and posting footage of their protests and placards online using the hashtag #PayProtectProtest. This is activism in an age of isolation and we are calling for urgent action from government to end the crisis in care homes and save lives. That includes guaranteeing a real living wage and employment protections for all care workers, along with testing and protective gear, because until it is possible for carers to self-isolate we cannot hope to reduce the spread of infection in care settings, which now make up a third of all Covid-related deaths.
When asked by the gaggle of press that waited outside the Elysée Palace what he wanted to ask of the President, Gassama’s brother answered without hesitation: good working and housing conditions. Surely, our government should provide that for our heroes too? We will keep clapping and marching and campaigning until they do.
Mandu Reid is the leader of the Women’s Equality Party.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.