A few weeks ago, when Manuela’s* employers started showing symptoms of coronavirus, she was faced with an impossible decision.
A 22-year-old live-in nanny from Brazil, she doesn’t have right-to-work documentation and therefore relies on cash-in-hand income from the families she works for. If she doesn’t go to work, where she is exposed to the virus, she won’t get any cash. Without that cash she can’t pay for food and basic necessities. As one of the 2 million workers in the UK’s informal economy, many of whom are migrant women, she is not able to receive any support from the government.
Government support measures such as the Job Retention Scheme and the Self-employed Income Support Scheme will help many workers through the coronavirus pandemic, providing up to £2,500 per month. But unions, migrant support organisations and other frontline groups have highlighted how these measures fail to do anything for many of the vulnerable workers who need support. Even our minimal social security system for those who fall through the net is unavailable to migrants.
Manuela decided to risk destitution over sickness and leave her job. She is now sleeping on a friend’s floor, buying food with savings that will soon run out. But many nannies are unable to say no if their employers ask them to keep working, even if it breaks government guidelines. Ana*, another Brazilian nanny living in London, has continued to commute to her employers’ house on public transport every day, leaving her kids at home now that schools are closed. Like most care work, there is no way Ana can social distance from the children she is looking after, and she has not been provided with any protective equipment. Workers in the informal economy were already at higher risk of labour rights violations such as underpayment, excessive working hours, and denial of sick pay and entitlements but coronavirus has only exacerbated this.
In addition to being more exposed and susceptible to disease due to poor working conditions, migrant workers are also less capable of accessing healthcare when they become ill. “I was so scared when the mother I worked for got sick because if I became sick in this country then I could be in danger” Manuela explains. The no recourse to public funds policy denies people with insecure immigration status access to the vast majority of benefits including universal credit. Minister have suspended charges for coronavirus treatment for overseas visitors but charities have warned that undocumented migrants are dying from Covid-19 because hostile environment policies have made them too scared to seek help. A letter signed by 60 MPs is demanding the immediate suspension of all NHS charging for migrants and all data sharing between health services and the home office.
Manuela and Ana, like increasing numbers of childcare workers in the informal economy, find work through websites like childcare.co.uk or apps like Bubble. In response to the coronavirus crisis, both childcare.co.uk and Bubble have launched the We <3 NHS initiative, which encourages childcare workers to use these online platforms to volunteer their services to NHS workers in need of childcare. NHS workers certainly need all the help they can get but so the workers on these platforms facing potential homelessness and destitution. Rather than providing support for their workers, these platforms are asking them to work for free.
Many have argued that coronavirus could force us to revalue the care work performed by a largely immigrant workforce. But initiatives like this suggest something more sinister – the devaluation of care work by reinforcing the idea that it’s not work at all.. Historically, mainstream economics has not recognised tasks such as cooking, cleaning and childcare as productive forms of labour, because they have historically been carried out for free by ‘naturally caring’ feminised family members. Manuela described how this can be weaponised by employers to exploit nannies or housekeepers: “They say, ‘Oh you need to be a part of the family,’ because then you are expected to work all the time just for love.”
Key workers, including care home staff, nursery staff and nurses, have been described repeatedly as ‘heroes’ in the past few weeks. Rather than ‘heroes’, they need recognition as workers. Workers are entitled to pay and protections. Heroes are expected to sacrifice everything for their ‘<3’ of the NHS. But love won’t pay people’s rent or their meals. Instead of romanticising this kind of sacrifice, we should ensure that no one is expected to sacrifice their livelihoods or lives when it can be avoided.
The government must ensure that all workers have access to financial support so that no one feels forced to ‘heroically’ accept exploitative employment to keep themselves from becoming destitute during the pandemic. The UK has entered the current crisis with one of the weakest employment safety nets since the creation of the welfare state with the main unemployment payment worth only 15% of average earnings. Years of hostile environment policies, including the no recourse to public funds criteria, exclude vulnerable migrants and their children from even this meagre safety net, and undermine the government’s pandemic response.
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) and others such as Trade Union Congress (TUC), Citizens Advice, and openDemocracy have proposed significant reforms to social security to protect workers. NEF have proposed a Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG) at a rate of £221 per person per week to provide a decent income for anyone that needs it. This includes people already on universal credit or waiting for payments from the government’s current income protection schemes. By removing all means testing at the point of access and making the payment universally available, the MIG could be implemented quickly without overwhelming delivery systems. To make the safety net available to workers like Gabriela, the government will also need to scrap the no recourse to public funds policy.
*Names have been changed
Update 5 May 2020: Ari Last, Co-Founder of Bubble, submitted the following response to this article:
"We’re disappointed and entirely refute the misinformed insinuations of the author. They totally misrepresent what bubble’s entirely charitable, voluntary scheme is and how it works. Our NHS volunteer scheme only came about after hundreds of the wonderful sitters and nannies in our community asked us to provide it for them. Many of them, to their immense credit, were desperate to help the NHS in some way, and asked us to provide this feature. We know how hard times are for so many people and businesses across the country and across all sectors, and of course, volunteering right now is simply not possible for so many. Nobody has been asked to, or is expected to work for free. We’ve seen many sitters benefit from initially offering to volunteer, but then being taken on to do paid work.
"We think the issue of childcare, and the value of the amazing people who provide it in this country has never been more apparent, or more at the forefront of the public consciousness then during this pandemic. As we have always done at Bubble, we will continue to invest and work towards supporting and improving the prospects, opportunities and well being of providers in the childcare sector. Continuing to provide a service that helps them win more work and earn more money in a safer, more convenient and more transparent way."