Undervalued essential workers leaving professions for better paid work in supermarkets

Essential workers in health and education are leaving critical roles for better-paid roles in supermarkets, according to UNISON chief Christina McAnea

11 Nov 2022| News

Speaking to Committee Corridor, the podcast from select committees at the House of Commons, Christina McAnea described to host Darren Jones MP, how healthcare workers, teaching assistants and paramedics are among the occupations facing stressful, draining jobs with no certainty of pay increases to match the rising cost of living. A lack of career structure and progression compounds the incentive to stay, with troubling consequences: “If these services are rundown, that’s not good for the British public”, she warned.

Unison is predominantly a public sector union, drawing its 1.3 million members from local government, education and health. Ms McAnea reported how more people in higher income brackets such as £30-40k are seeking assistance as the cost-of-living crisis bites deeper, adding that these were people UNISON would never have heard from before.

“Almost 30% of NHS employers now provide foodbanks for their staff, and another 20% are planning to set them up,” she said, also detailing how employers are reporting rising levels of staff absence just before payday as employees cannot afford fuel or travel costs to get to work.

The latest episode of Committee Corridor considers jobs and the workforce. It airs as vacancies in health and social care soar and more workers vote for strike action. Schools fear cuts to school budgets will mean cutting back on support staff – which would diminish the quality of children’s education, said the General Secretary.

Ms McAnea called for such essential professions, including carers and special needs assistants to be better valued and recognised for their contribution to wider society. This could include more structured career paths to improve retention and save employers the costs of recruiting and training in areas of high staff turnover.

Select Committee members Ian Mearns MP (Education Committee, Labour) and Greg Smith MP (Transport Committee, Conservative), who joined Darren Jones on the podcast, agreed that change is needed urgently to improve the conditions of workers in essential sectors.

Mr Smith highlighted the struggle road hauliers face in the recruitment and retention of long-distance lorry drivers, with many leaving for better pay and hours driving supermarket HGVs. Following work on a Transport Committee report into road freight, he described the conditions the Committee witnessed at roadside washing facilities:

“We saw tiles falling off the walls. We saw mould. We saw taps that didn’t work. Changing areas that you really didn’t want to get changed in… we’ve got to up our game as a country on those roadside facilities.”

Meanwhile, Mr Mearns said that while overall budgets for education had increased, per child financing had not kept up with inflation but that for teachers “pay is obviously the biggest concern.” The Education Committee is considering how post-16 qualifications and whether young people are effectively prepared for the world of work.

Host Darren Jones MP, chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee which is investigating UK labour markets. “There are not enough people with the right skills in the right places to do all the right jobs,” he said. “We think this is something that’s really challenging our abilities to grow the economy and to improve our productivity. So, it’ll be a win-win for workers and for the economy, as well as for our public services if we can get this right.”

Listen to the podcast here.

Details of Committee Corridor are available from the UK Parliament website where the transcript of each episode is also published. Series one and two are available from all the usual podcast providers.