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Image: Francisco Martins CC BY-NC 2.0

The news in 2014 was regularly punctuated with stories of care home residents suffering abuse. As a result, care workers have been prosecuted and sentenced and homes have been closed, yet hidden camera exposes produced by residents’ relatives and by documentary film makers continue to highlight further incidents. The picture is grim. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that we have heard resurgent calls, from politicians, professional bodies and journalists, for a return to ‘compassionate care’. These calls usually emphasise the need for care workers to be re-trained so that they can learn (or re-learn) empathy. Sometimes this is juxtaposed to an emphasis on professional qualifications. For instance, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron suggested that ‘nurses should be hired and promoted on the basis of having compassion as a vocation not just academic qualifications’.

Yet, this widespread interpretation of recent crises in the care sector misunderstands the logic of care work. Simply put, it ignores the fact that care work is a type of what scholars have termed ‘body work‘: paid work that requires workers to touch, manipulate or otherwise work on, and in direct contact with, the bodies of others. For various reasons, summarized below, body work is extremely difficult to standardize or make profitable. Yet a privatized care regime is premised on companies’ ability to do precisely this: realize profit through standardization and capital-labor savings. In this context, one in which private care companies attempt to achieve largely unachievable goals, there is no reason to believe we have seen the last harm to residents nor a shift away from care practices that systematically undermine the dignity of those being cared for. Meanwhile, care workers employed by private companies have become residual casualties; unable to compensate for the structural problems endemic to privatized body work and demonized by the media when things go wrong. Read More

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