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Durham University

Research & business

Valuing ‘unskilled’ work

(8 April 2020)

Dr Jo McBride from our Business School and Professor Miguel Martínez Lucio from the University of Manchester explain how Covid-19 is changing the way we value “unskilled” work in our society.

Peoples’ perceptions of certain types of jobs are generally influenced by their typical salary or whether it is viewed as ‘professional’, ‘skilled’, ‘low skilled’ or ‘unskilled’. Depending on where it is placed in the occupational and pay hierarchy it is then compounded by the status of a certain type of job. Of course, there are other influences, for example the social perceptions of a job and the general value that it has within society, i.e. the stigma associated with the image of a certain type of job.

Amongst the multitude of issues raised with the outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK, is the socially mutual recognition of the genuine value of ‘key workers’, many of which had previously been passively dismissed within those categories above. We say this as our research on cleaning work, conducted well before this crisis, demonstrates that, despite being viewed as ‘unskilled’, this work has ironically become more complex and challenging and now, does not necessarily sit well within the category of ‘unskilled’ work – but is still valued in that category and paid at the lower levels within it. The cleaning workers in our study have been extending their roles and functions for years.

The privatisation and outsourcing of large parts of the public sector since the 1980s have made a huge impact in reshaping cleaning and related work. Our previous research has also shown the degradation of the role of the cleaner in very specific ways. For instance the move towards sub-contracting, and an ongoing reduction in staff, means it has become a more isolated job. The sector has also seen the introduction of more systematic performance management and monitoring. On top of this, the austerity-driven cuts since 2008 have made this work, not only maintained at lower levels of pay, but also more insecure – yet ironically - more complex and with further responsibility.

Hence many cleaners today are dealing with growing limitations on resources, while at the same time this work has been intensified. Many are now forced to use their discretion much more widely due to varying reasons including making quick decisions, often in isolation, when dealing with the greater challenges they face in their daily working lives - where to clean and how, how to deal with difficult and violent contexts, and how to deal with fewer resources.

We included the following cleaning workers in our study:

  • Internal cleaners – council cleaners, laundry cleaners, kitchen cleaners, university cleaners.
  • External cleaners - domestic refuse collectors, street cleansing operatives, applied sweeper drivers, refuse recycling, litter pickers.

We argued in our most recent paper that there is a need to reconsider the changing nature, as well as the value of, unskilled work. Many of these workers are now playing a vital role in the Coronavirus crisis, and their work is now being socially recognised as ‘valuable’; hence it is clearly important that we continue to re-evaluate what we mean by ‘unskilled’ work so that it is also recognised as valuable work economically and politically.

We will be following this up in a forthcoming paper on the current problems with outdated definitions and terminologies of ‘skill’.

Find out more

  • Jo McBride is an Associate Professor of Industrial Relations, Work and Employment at our Business School
  • To read more details of Dr McBride and Professor Martínez Lucio’s 2016 paper on the degradation of certain occupations, please click here
  • Interested in studying at our Business School? Take a look at our different study programmes here

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