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  • Hannah McHugh

How we failed to recognise our (un)skilled workers

“Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.”

These are the words of Charles Taylor, who clearly elaborated for us that recognition by others is fundamental to our identity, and that lack of it can inflict serious harm. Taylor wrote this with reference to the treatment of minority groups in society, for example those that can be identified along ethnic or cultural lines. Have we, however, failed to notice that such damaging misrecognition has been prevalent along the lines of our economic division of labour in recent years? This current crisis has challenged our perception. Workers previously called ‘unskilled’ are now considered ‘essential’. The great mistreatment of national health-workers dominates our headlines. We have carved an identity for them as heroes who work in an underfunded environment, and in doing so, made this true. By not affording these groups due recognition, we have shaped their identity in an unjustifiable way. We have caused harm to our perception of these members of our society and moreover to their perception of themselves, their economic viability and their ability to contribute to our society.

I will set out why I believe this to be so by first considering the role of recognition in shaping our identities, and then discussing the impact of misrecognition.

How are our identities formed?

How do we understand who we are? Our identity is something inherently personal to us. However, we cannot possibly know it without experiencing ourselves in a social environment. We cannot entirely inwardly generate who we are. Human life has a crucial feature: that it is fundamentally experienced through expression with others. We understand that we are kind, when we are kind to others. We understand that we are valuable, when we see ourselves as appreciated. We form our thoughts using expression that target the perceptions of others; think of art, gestures, love and even our words. We learn and understand these tools of expression through our interactions with others and could ascribe almost no meaning to them if we were to self-define them. We are not just the deterministic result of our identities at birth, but the result of the continual actions and interactions we have taken throughout our lives. Consider the measures it may be necessary to take to avoid having our identity formed by others; few true hermits exist, and they are rarely born into such conditions. Our characteristics, aspirations, fears and wants all owe a debt to those who helped define them and us. That is to say, our identities are formed in a dialogue with others.

Why do we need to be recognised?

Some of the seminal ideas about citizen dignity and universal recognition can be found in the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau observed society’s hierarchical structure shifting significantly. Systems of hierarchical honour began to slowly erode and be replaced with the idea of equality. A political system based on hierarchical honour and a political system based on equal worth and dignity do, perhaps despite initial intuitions, have a significant feature in common. They structure our understanding of who we are.

The second sentence of Rousseau’s The Social Contract states: “Tel se croit le maître des autres, qui ne laisse pas d’être plus esclave qu’eux (One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they).” Here, Rousseau is telling us that we are dependent upon hierarchies, even upon those beneath us, to understand ourselves. Without the recognition of those who serve you, how could you see yourself as a master?

The claim here is not that we are solely what others think of us. Our dependence on other’s views is more nuanced. Consider instances where we are misrecognised. The pain is evident. Most of us can conjure up the burning intensity and indignation of the feelings we experience when we know we always do the washing up at home but are regularly overlooked for our contribution to the household’s running. Or the smack of an emotion when we did in fact pay for our train ticket but accidentally lost it before the inspector arrived. How we are recognised by our society is integral to our sense of self and how we develop. If we are told continually that we are terrible cooks, we will likely stop offering dinners. We may even decide we prefer takeaway to cooking for ourselves. We can begin then to imagine how continual and systematic misrecognition may shape our identity and behaviours in some significant respect.

How we have failed to recognise our essential workers

In a society based upon equality, we seek many different kinds of recognition. We want to be equal, but equally individual. We must recognise our individual distinctness from others, and we must do this without undermining our sense of equal value to them. We must be seen for who we are.

Consider this, the UK’s changing nature of work has systematically disadvantaged many workers. Recently, reports of record levels of UK employment have dominated our headlines; largely related to the rise in self-employment linked to the gig economy. However, we also see inequality and poverty increasing . Platforms like Uber or Deliveroo now make use of individuals classed as ‘independent contractors’, and other businesses use zero-hours contracts. Under such contracts it is perfectly possible to earn less than minimum wage and to have insecurity from week to week regarding the amount of work you might perform. Many must supplement their wages with some kind of welfare benefit, yet are given less state assistance as self-employed persons than is available to unemployed persons, regardless of the irregular and low amount of work they may be able to perform. Employers hail the flexibility that these contracts offer, and the neoliberal ideology surrounding this ‘self-employment’ shifts the emphasis of responsibility for failure to earn a sufficient living firmly onto the individual, rather than onto the firm. Firms can replace employees swiftly and without compensation. Contractors may experience high anxiety trying to hold onto their jobs and accept standards lower than they require for their needs and certainly far less than those afforded to full employees. The way these people’s identities are shaped depend on, amongst other factors, our society’s prevailing ideology and the shift of responsibility away from the state and onto individuals.

How then, can we match this with what we now know to be reality: that these workers are essential? To the extent that we have marginalised our ‘unskilled’ workers, we have precluded their development. Now we see so clearly that we depend on our couriers, delivery drivers and shopworkers for the operation of our country and for our personal wellbeing. Why then, have we cultivated a society which misrecognises such people as largely disposable? What may this marginalisation have done to their sense of selves, and ability to participate among us?

Consider also our health workers. We have developed an identity for health workers by associating their work with long hours and lack of economic reward. We have created an identity of ‘health heroes’. Of course, we should not diminish the heroic nature of the work they do, but why should they be heroes facing adversity? Why not recognise their worth and essential contribution and recast them as ‘well-regarded, commensurately paid and adequately protected healthcare heroes’ (granted, it doesn’t have the same punchy appeal…). The pain and stress felt by health workers pushed to the brink has been an eminent feature of this crisis and shines a light on the shame we ought to feel as a collective society for waiting so long to see the effects that our misrecognition, through chronic underfunding, has had on these heroes.

We not only want to allow other groups in society to survive. This is not equality. We must acknowledge their worth. This requires recognising their distinct and equal value. Now we know how these workers should be seen into our society, let’s never go back.

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