Supermarket and care staff in London could get key worker access to housing

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Supermarket and care staff could be added to the list of key workers in London to give them preferential access to cheaper housing, as part of a new post-pandemic settlement being considered by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

A consultation on including the occupations alongside nurses, firefighters and other public servants will be launched next month, if the Labour mayor wins a second term in the 6 May election. He led his nearest rival, the Conservative candidate, Shaun Bailey, by 22 points in a recent poll.

Khan has said he wants to “recognise the service and sacrifice made by key workers during the coronavirus pandemic by backing them to be first in the queue” for affordable housing. There are also calls to extend the policy nationwide. In London it would become part of planning guidance which City Hall sets across the capital for boroughs to follow.

Supermarket and care staff were included on the government’s list of “critical” staff in the pandemic, providing them with access to schooling for their children during lockdown. But they remain lower paid than other recognised key workers. Almost half of supermarket workers in the UK earn less than the real living wage, which is £9.50 an hour and £10.85 in the capital, according to research by the Living Wage Foundation.

The average wage of social care staff is £8.50 an hour and almost three-quarters of the workforce earn below the real living wage.

The move would mean adding an estimated 230,000 people to the usual list of key workers in London and councils would still retain the right to prioritise housing allocations. But the policy is being advocated by workers and thinktanks including the RSA, which also wants delivery drivers added to the list.

It has calculated that the average annual cost to rent a flat in the capital would take up 98% of the pre-tax pay of a social carer and 89% of a Sainsbury’s employee on the minimum wage. It said polling, carried out with Trust for London, showed 16% of supermarket workers and 17% of social carers would struggle to afford an unexpected bill of £100, compared with 12% of NHS workers.

“All key workers have had it tough, but our study shows this is especially the case in London, and even more so for those in insecure essential work,” said Jake Jooshandeh, a researcher at the RSA. “The next mayor’s definition of key worker must include those in insecure private sector jobs, as well as ‘blue light’ public sector workers. More than half of social care workers in the capital are on a zero-hours contract, but this group would not qualify for many key worker schemes.”

Karolina Gerlich, the executive director of the Care Workers’ Charity, which provides hardship support to care workers, said adding them to the list was “the right thing to do”.

“Rent is a huge part of the financial problem,” she said, adding that the charity had received grant applications from working care staff who had been living in homeless hostels and in squalid rental accommodation “with mould all over the walls”.

“We need to think creatively about how we support carer workers, beyond the reform of the social care system,” she said. “Housing costs contribute hugely to in-work poverty and is definitely something we need to be addressing.”

A spokesperson for London Labour said: “London’s heroic key workers are the lifeblood of our city and Sadiq is committed to make it easier for them to put down roots and become part of the communities they serve.”