Chapter 3: Mother Superior

An excerpt of the Mother Superior character narrative

Mother Superior (and the national minimum wage)

In Chapter 3,  Hayes explores homecare work as unpaid labour. Stories fitting the Mother Superior character narrative are those in which homecare workers present themselves as being morally ‘good women’. The narrative characterises how homecare workers express their caring competencies in terms that emphasise motivations of love rather than economic reward.

A rare and valuable insight into the lives and views of women who work in the little-known world of homecare for rates of pay and conditions that shame our society. That there is a correspondence between the predominant gender of the workforce and its low profile and meagre reward is inescapable. David Brindle, Public Services Editor, The Guardian.

The chapter draws on aspects of a vast literature about caring labour to connect the gendered framing of care for family as unpaid work with the prevalence of unpaid work in the homecare industry. The ensuing discussion reveals the extent to which understandings of caregiving are influenced by middle-class ideals of maternal nurture and emotional engagement. It is from this perspective that Hayes integrates homecare workers’ accounts of intimacy and altruism with an assessment of the statutory right to a minimum wage. She shows how the legal rules set out in the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, and the supporting National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999, reflect and reinforce normative expectations that care at home ought not to be provided for the reason of economic reward.

A key argument is that these rules are gendered and fail to fully recognise caregiving as work. Judicial interpretations of national minimum wage law justify constructions of paid caregiving as an unpaid activity and serve to validate the organisation of homecare work in ways that squeeze unpaid labour from working-class women.

We are nothing without the care and support of others. We are most when we understand and truly value the work our carers do to hold our society together. Lydia Hayes has shown through her deep analysis of the stories of a range of care workers how badly undervalued their work is. So, given their increasing importance to our society, her excellent analysis and call for the full recognition of the true importance of their work, could not be more timely. Robin Allen QC, Cloisters Chambers, UK