Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Essential workers are underpaid and undervalued, why is this happening and what can be done?

A closer look at the disparity in wage structures globally reveals a fundamental problem with social perceptions. Sangeetha Shinde explores the world of pay differentials and the factors driving it

For anyone who has had a hospital visit, or a surgery, we know the value of a good doctor. We will gush over the skills of the surgeon who replaced our hip, but rarely do we wax lyrical about the nurse who helped us to the restroom, changed our dressings or diligently changed the IV bottle as we slept. We may all love the athlete who wins medals, but where are the honours for the teacher in school who first spotted the talent and nurtured it? We may well love a clean street but under what conditions do our sanitation workers operate. A look at their conditions in most developing countries is a shocking eye-opener. And in many Western countries’ immigrants are often found doing the more unpleasant tasks of cleaning and scrubbing….

Across the board one thing is certain… essential work is poorly paid and mostly looked down on. We don’t hear of parents encouraging children to become a care worker or a cleaner, do we?

A broken system

Teachers, nurses, and care workers are all essential workers who play a vital role in our society. They provide care and support to our children, our sick and elderly, and our most vulnerable citizens. Yet, despite their importance, these workers are often underpaid and undervalued. Their work is essential to our society. Teachers educate our children, nurses care for our sick, and care workers provide support to our elderly and disabled loved ones. This work is essential to the well-being of our communities, and it is only fitting that the compensation match the actual value, rather than the perception of value.

Teachers are required to have a B.Ed or a Masters level education before they can teach. This is usually the equivalent of 5 years of study, the same as an MBBS programme, and yet, paid far more poorly. Somehow, fixing a broken leg pays better than the 12 years of learning that are a fundamental requirement for our children and, indeed, our future itself.

Teachers, nurses, and care workers are all essential workers who play a vital role in our society, yet, despite their importance, these workers are often underpaid and undervalued

A bottle of wine, for example, can cost more than a nurse’s monthly salary in most places. In November 2021, a six-litre bottle of The Setting Wines 2019 Glass Slipper Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon became the most expensive wine ever sold at auction, being bought for a whopping US$1 million. When drunk that one million dollars would eventually be flushed down a toilet to be cleaned by a sanitation worker who would not earn that amount even if he or she worked double shifts an entire lifetime.

Essential workers often work long hours and have demanding jobs. Teachers may work 10-12 hours per day, and they often have to work weekends and holidays. Nurses may work 12-hour shifts, and they may be on call 24/7. Care workers may work long hours, and they may have to deal with unpleasant and challenging situations and potentially dangerous conditions. The same workers are often under pressure and stress. Teachers may have to deal with difficult students and parents. Nurses may have to deal with sick and dying patients. Care workers may have to deal with difficult and demanding residents. Surely, these workers deserve to be paid a wage that reflects the long hours and demanding and incredibly stressful situations.

And let’s face it…These workers are in high demand. There is an acute shortage of teachers, nurses, and care workers in many countries. This means that these workers have the bargaining power to demand higher wages, but yet they continue to be undervalued.

Something is very wrong…

The upper cut

Paying teachers, nurses, and care workers more would benefit society as a whole. It would attract more qualified people to these professions, thereby improving the quality of education, healthcare, and care. It would also reduce turnover rates, which would save money in the long run. The cost of living has been rising steadily in recent years, but wages for these workers have not kept pace. This means that they are struggling to make ends meet and the last thing we need is burned out teachers educating our children, a nurse worrying about her mortgage payment while he or she changes a dressing or inserts a needle into a vien, or a cleaner doing a less than able job because he stopped caring as he wasn’t paid enough. Let us not forget public health is dependent on public hygiene, at the end of the day.

The average annual salary for a teacher in the UK is a little over 34,293 GBP.  Conversely, a GP in the UK gets paid, on average 61,551 GBB, almost double. A nurse in the UK gets an average base salary of 31,894 GBP, even less than a teacher. A care worker gets even less at 21,884 GBP per annum, Unsurprisingly, it is getting increasingly hard for people to care for the elderly and the sick and the quality of education drops around the world everyday as less and less people turn towards these professions as they do not enable a decent quality of life.

Sanitation workers have it especially bad. Mahatma Gandhi, that flagbearer of cleanliness once said, “Sanitation is more important than political independence.” And it is without question that good sanitation leads to community health. There’s a reason we were told to keep our hands and surfaces clean during the pandemic. Yet sanitary workers in India get paid as little as 20,000 INR in a country where fuel is over a 100 INR a litre and the price of tomatoes has risen to 35 INR a kilo and a decent education for children has become an expensive practice for anyone… while the salaries of a teacher is 37,500 INR a month, barely 400 GBP.  Global and national level inflation make these pay scales undoable in the real world, clearly.

The UN states that unpaid care and domestic work is valued to be 10 and 39 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product and can contribute more to the economy than the manufacturing, commerce, or transportation sectors

The capitalist change

In a world where those that we rely on the most get paid the least begs the question of why we are where we are? Why the inequity? Why is an engineer more valuable than a teacher? Why is a lawyer more expensive per hour than a care worker? Are they not providing services of equal value?  Why is minimum wage NOT a living wage in keeping with the economic vagaries of the current market place? The problem is very firmly the consumer who decides the value of a product or service. It is the consumer who has set the norm that a lawyer, who studies more than a care worker, gets paid more. Henry Ford famously said that, “It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money; it is the customer who pays the wages.”

Of course, there is no denying fields such as medicine, engineering and law require massive cash layouts that need to see return on the investment made. It is the system itself that is flawed, notably an education system that makes acquiring a quality education a path to insurmountable debt for some, and unaffordable for most. While positive affirmation initiatives by many governments have attempted to bridge this great divide we cannot, as a species, continue to look to public bodies to solve a very real crisis being faced by the world today.

Perhaps the change must come from the public itself rather than policy. And we could do a few things differently to make sure that teachers, nurses, and care workers get paid more. One is to increase government funding for these professions and be aware of these factors when we vote for our leaders. Another is to unionize workers so that they have more bargaining power and the marginalized can have a voice that is actually heard. Finally, and most importantly, we can all do our part to appreciate the important work that these workers do and to advocate for fair wages for them. We can pay our staff better, offer respect along with a decent pay and working conditions. Perhaps we thank the cleaning staff at airports and acknowledge their incredible contribution to our lives. Entrepreneurs can set up systems at the start of a business idea to ensure that there is equitable distribution of wealth across the board. Addressing the issue of women’s work and the gender pay gap alone will go a long way in changing the way workers get paid. The UN states that unpaid care and domestic work is valued to be 10 and 39 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product and can contribute more to the economy than the manufacturing, commerce, or transportation sectors. It is interesting to note that the sectors that are the most poorly paid tend to be staffed primarily by women.

Paying teachers, nurses, and care workers more is an investment in our future. It will help to ensure that our children get a good education, that our sick and elderly are properly cared for, and that our most vulnerable citizens are supported. It is an investment that we can all afford to make. One we must make…

Sign Up to Our Newsletter