The Uncaring Rewards of Paid Care
Field research conducted in Teeside in northeast England highlights the links between precarity and low pay for workers providing long-term care.
In her recent Care Talk piece, Nancy Folbre discusses economists’ use of the word “precarious”, which, for work and workers, encompasses insecurity, low pay and conditions that inhibit planning. For me, the final point evoked thoughts of the insecure, rudderless workers of Richard Sennett’s seminal The Corrosion of Character. The overall description recalled my own doctoral research on the conditions in frontline long-term care work for young adults in Teesside, north-east England. Some of the literature I know from the US on care work foregrounds precarious, or at least insecure, work, such as Clare Stacey’s dense and nuanced ethnography of homecare aides, or Lila Savage’s insightful novel centring on the experience of a young adult homecare aide.
For my study, I used Guy Standing’s framework, built on seven work-related securities, whose absence are indicators of precarious work. While Standing uses these securities at the societal level, I adopted them as ways of thinking about the layered nature of care work’s (in)security. I used his term “income security”, for example, to consider relative pay, and “representation security” to investigate union activity.
Using Standing’s definition in a strict way, I contend that precarious isn’t the best way to describe this work. Despite the work at times lacking some of these securities, the most universal characteristic was its very low pay. Not only was the hourly pay very low, but other pay-related benefits were too, such as increments for length of service or promotion. However, most of the workers had permanent contracts, and for this reason I question whether precarious is appropriate to describe the work overall. I recognise of course that many care workers in England, and beyond, do not have this contractual security, and am sympathetic to the argument that low pay signifies precarious. Whether work is precarious is distinct from the worker being precarious, and Iain Campbell and Robin Price’s work on this difference is enlightening, as is, relatedly, Fran Bennett’s on how being low-paid does not always result in (in-work) poverty. These discussions are relevant to care work, where the gendered, classed, and racialised social order remains stubborn, and where women’s income remains supplementary in many households.
As part of my research, I spoke to six young people embarking on a 6-week care training course, which if successfully completed would guarantee them a job interview with a local care provider. My overwhelming reflection following the interviews was of these young people being let down by the poor quality care work destination they were pursuing. They sought stability, often to help them support their own families and maintain unpaid caring responsibilities. They wanted to avoid zero-hours contracts (which some providers were offering and which provide no contractually guaranteed hours) and have the opportunity to progress (which care work offers unevenly and inconsistently).
This notion of being let down links well to Nancy’s reference to a “culture of uncare”. She connects this to wider processes, to environmental and social harms, and the term made me return again to the situation of the care workers I spoke to. Not only are we failing to ‘care for the carers’, but we are failing to provide good jobs for young people. Much of their care work supported older adults, and so my research spans and connects life course stages, but it is important to think more about young people’s role in the sustainability and reproduction of care work. The way that care work is constituted, the way it is (not/under)valued, emits meaning about what is and isn’t, and who is and isn’t, important. In this sense, the conditions and environment represent the shared marginality of care workers and those they care for.
Care work is inherently green work, local, ubiquitous, and in the case of Teesside, my study’s research setting, improving it presents an opportunity to aid renewal following post-industrial decline (which Gabriel Winant eloquently discusses in the US context). We should do everything in our power to make this a much more stable, secure, and valorised form of work.
Images in the article created by Care Talk 2.0 and CartoonStock.com