Shifting values and value in a time of Covid

Black and white photo of the young Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde. Photo: Napoleon Sarony (public domain)

Does the Covid pandemic have something to teach us about the value of work? Or are we cynics at heart? The pandemic has illustrated just how much we value those jobs we may have been guilty of taking for granted before: nurses, carers, delivery drivers, shop workers and many more. How often do we hear nowadays ministers and journalists telling us just how much they now value these workers?

But what do they mean when they talk of this ‘value’?

Value in everyday parlance can have a variety of meanings in our confusing language. Values can be those principles which motivate individually or collectively. Nations, for example, can be lucky enough to be values-driven, as France is, constitutionally, by Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The United States was founded for Liberty and Opportunity.

Here in the UK, we have no written constitution to guide the national endeavour. Imagine what ours might be if drafted by our current government! Self, Wealth and Exceptionalism? Such matters should be the subject of consensus, though, so there should in theory be a chance of confirming rather more historic values for this country: pluralism, justice and freedom of expression, perhaps.

Values also differentiate political parties from one another on a higher plane than policies, which come and go. The Tory party is libertarian, for example, with a focus on the individual, while Labour is about social justice, with a collective focus.

Value in the singular is used to express monetary worth, importance or gratitude. Returning to the pandemic, if those people mentioned above do what we think is valuable work, should they not also be valued properly and paid accordingly? After all, their clients, the public, value their work highly. In a capitalist economy, market evaluation is supposed to determine price yet this often fails in the case of workers’ wages.

Carers, for example, make life easier for elderly or infirm people. There are about 1.5m paid care workers both in residential homes and visiting people. Carers work largely in the private sector, non-unionised but with exacting quality and training standards. Carers are often gifted with empathy and vocation as well as training and experience. Pay is often below or around the minimum living wage, constrained by the level of per-patient funding provided by ever-stretched local authorities. And family carers works 24/7, often without any breaks or holidays, and receive very little income to do so.

Valuing such work can be very difficult, but Covid has taught us that empathy and care are worth more than the least we can get away with paying. The issue raises a range of questions, many of them deeply personal.

Having loved ones loved is priceless. Which of us with a loved relative needing care that we cannot give would say: “I only want the carer for my Dad to be paid the minimum wage”? Which of us put into the position of needing care ourselves would not want the most skilled and empathetic person to do that work?

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Should this same relationship between the value to society and rate of pay be applied to other functions in the care hierarchy, such as to chief executives, for example? The Tory government in the 1980s, which founded today’s economic hegemony, infamously argued that increasing the pay of company bosses would make them work harder because they would be more motivated. The same government simultaneously arranged matters so that the equation worked in reverse for the rest of the working population.

Do company bosses work any harder than the workers whom they employ or who, in the case of carers, look after their family members? Are their business skills so rarefied that they are worth 100x the remuneration of their own colleagues? How many CEOs and remuneration committees of the well-heeled do not consider their value to the enterprise enhanced when suppressing the wages of their employees to raise the company dividend? How many of their employees or customers would agree with this valuation, over which they have no say?

Perhaps, in the post-pandemic era, the workers on whom so much has depended will have a new sense of their own value and worth, for which they and we will stand up, in the same way as the better-paid do.

However, if there is a need to re-think the link between value and pay in our society, as many of the responses to the pandemic seem to suggest, it is unlikely to be fairly addressed by the Conservative government. Rather, demand must come with reasoning and pressure from the society which has experienced the true value of the work.

The tool to achieve this may be the application of values. Judgements about the relative value of work and workers requires principles – values – on which to base these. Which brings us back to the question: just what are this country’s values?

Are they based, as Oscar Wilde once famously wrote, on the view of the cynic who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing? We can do better than that, spurred on by our own values and the value we place on workers’ skills and effort.

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