Helen Martin: The minimum wage conceals a lot of dirt

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NEARLY one million people had a pay rise at the weekend. What, no parties? No champagne? No offers to take the family out for a celebratory meal? Not for the sake of an extra £1.20 a day.

That was the effect of the 15p per hour “hike” on the national minimum wage for adults, bringing it up to £6.08. For 20-year-olds, it was a 6p rise to £4.98, and for 16- and 17-year- olds, it was up by 4p to £3.68; probably enough to buy a couple of balloons, but not a priority when supermarkets have had to start putting security tags on packets of mince.

We can be as outraged about the level of the minimum wage as we like, but the real scandal is the number of skilled workers who are on it, and that comes down to the definition of “skill”.

Those of us lucky enough to be in receipt of at least reasonable reward for our labour tend to regard minimum wage jobs as “unskilled”, the sort of job that has to be done by somebody, anybody, but doesn’t require any particular talent, flair or qualification beyond being able-bodied or having a basic ability to read, write, count, talk and follow instructions.

Yet that couldn’t be further from the truth for many people trapped on minimum wage. The recent report on the cleanliness, or lack of, in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary is a case in point. Four out of nine wards were found to be dirty, blood-spattered and dusty. There were dirty toilets and commodes and overflowing bins of dirty linen.

Leaving aside the disastrously flawed concept of the private finance initiative, one problem is the undervaluing of good and expert cleaners, possibly one result of having too many well-off men, who only encounter Marigolds in their gardens, deciding on wage rates. Anyone can appear to mop a floor, clean a toilet or flick a duster. That is not “cleaning”.

Real cleaning is knowing how to do all these things to hospital standard; to understand that dust is primarily dead skin cells and remove it rather than shove it around; to realise dust rises so there’s no point in dusting before vacuuming; to really tackle germs and bacteria in a toilet bowl rather than just remove the obvious stains; to know that a door handle is a high risk area; to correctly prioritise necessary hygiene above superficial tidiness and much more.

If chief operators and health board members would like to give it a go, they may well find it beyond their capabilities, too. Instead, they use agency staff or “cleaners” on the minimum wage.

Care assistants in nursing homes are grossly under-valued. These are the people who wash, dress, feed and apply many non-invasive treatments to vulnerable residents. They are in charge of, or at least instrumental, in feeding, nutrition and general welfare. They have to know how to move people from the heavy and non-ambulatory to the frail and fragile whose skin is so thin, it can come off in their hands. They have to observe small changes in the behaviour of people with dementia who cannot voice their pains or fears, interpret these and know how to give reassurance, or alert medical staff to a possible problem. Unskilled? I think not.

Childcare, community and youth work ... all essential areas where employers would rather make false economies and save a buck by hiring cheap labour than recognise the skills necessary and pay accordingly. And, not surprisingly, all areas that give rise for concern when those skills are all too obviously absent.

The real scandal of the “minimum wage” is that the old phrase about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing is running through vital services. The cheapest solution isn’t always the best. In fact, it is very often the worst which lands up costing more in the long run and sometimes more than money can buy.

Bad medicine

THE new NHS 24 TV channel which is to provide health advice and information to those without a home broadband connection sounds fine in theory – as long as there isn’t TOO MUCH information.

In medicine a little knowledge is often a dangerous thing. As a doctor once told me, give a layman a medical dictionary and there’s every chance he’ll self-diagnose at least six terminal conditions he doesn’t have.

That aside, the idea of booking a GP appointment using the red button seems superfluous, possibly complicating the existing booking system, when all that’s necessary is a phone call, or for every practice to offer – as the best already do – a regular open surgery where anyone who really wants to see a doctor simply waits their turn.