Has key worker status been given to the right industries?

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The BBC Drama Village in Birmingham is used for long running soap Doctors. Credit: BBC

Key worker status has been given to those that work in construction. Other industries, such as entertainment, argue that their role in society and the West Midlands economy is equally as important.

Birmingham Eastside spoke to Tom Cooper and Sam Houseman. They made their arguments on key worker status, and whether it has been given to the right people.

Cooper is a site supervisor for a major engineering firm that works across the West Midlands.

Sam Houseman worked on long-running Birmingham based BBC show, Doctors. He then moved on to big-budget TV and Film productions.

The entertainment industry employs 72,000 people in the West Midlands, which makes up 2.6% of the jobs in the region.

Data from the Office for National Statistics in 2018 shows that 8% of construction jobs nationally are found in the West Midlands. This number is growing due to projects such as the HS2 rail network.

Economic importance

The major points of both arguments stem around the economic impact of not being able to work.

We have these huge projects that involve multiple companies, a lot of people.

“In a time like this, our economy has taken a big hit from the furlough scheme, and all that. I think it’s very important that we do keep these big economically important jobs going.”

Tom Cooper

With Birmingham being the site of major engineering work, much of it surrounding HS2, stopping work could have a large impact on the local economy.

Construction of HS2 through Birmingham City centre has continued through lockdown.

“It’s such a massive industry, and shutting it down would cause many people to lose their jobs. Also, the country to lose a big source of income.”

Tom Cooper

Houseman also makes the point that the Film and TV industry brings money and jobs into the UK economy. In Birmingham alone, the BBC Drama Village provides a lot of opportunities for young people looking to get started in entertainment. 

While filming at the site has been allowed to continue, many bigger budget TV and Film projects have been put on hold. This on top of being unable to perform with live audiences, has hit the industry hard.

“We’re going to be in incredibly deep recession. The TV and film industry provides such a big boost to the economy of our country.

“From that alone you can think, ‘should that make you a key worker?'”

Sam Houseman

Keeping the country running

Both sides argue that their industries help keep the country running. However, the form this comes in for each is different. In construction, the need for good infrastructure is a talking point.

“We’re not helping people so much as helping the country, we’re building the infrastructure of the country.”

Tom Cooper

The new, improved or simply mended transport systems allow the population’s cars, buses and trains to keep going. Houseman however, argues that keeping the country going mentally, while people are stuck at home, is of greater importance.

“During lockdown, people want escapism, and people want things to do. And a lot of people turn to streaming services or watching TV or films.

Sam Houseman

With the current lockdown expected to stretch into spring, the public’s mental health will become an ever increasing issue. New TV and Film content would provide a break from the mundanity of lockdown life. Not being able to work, means there is less of this escapism.

We physically can’t work from home, the nature of our work requires us to actually be in and doing something in-person.

Sam Houseman

Not on the front line

Where both parties agree however, is that their industries pale in comparison to the influence and work of the NHS and frontline workers. They also suggested that a new classification of workers may be needed, to separate the front line and other industries.

“I don’t think we should be classified as key workers in the same way that healthcare professionals and carers are classified as key workers.

Tom Cooper

“We shouldn’t be held in the same position as what they’re going through right now…

“I’m just not of the belief that we are in the same kind of league as what the NHS are currently doing for our country.”

Sam Houseman

No satisfying conclusion

The conclusion is an unsatisfactory one. As Cooper put forward it’s a grey area, balancing safety and the need for work.

“It’s a bit of a grey area, really. The construction work is needed. But of course, you have to be safe and careful around how you’re keeping these places open.”

Houseman argues that filming for TV and other entertainment can be done in a safe way. If construction can go ahead with added regulations, why can’t entertainment?

You can make sure you’re always thinking that one step ahead, in terms of safety

There are ways around it, we can say ‘you can’t do this, because they’re going to be too close.’ So the cameraman can actually step back from the camera. So he’s not endangering himself.

Sam Houseman

Unfortunately for him, the government has long made its decision on key worker status.  Many industries feel as if they’ve been let down by the government, even though they may be able to safely resume. In the meantime Construction can proceed with caution.

Does a new classification for workers need to be introduced? Who should be classified as key workers? Comment below with your views…

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