When work and pensions and secretary Therese Coffey said in an interview this week that her relative anonymity meant she was doing her job well, she may not have anticipated how her shocking comments in the very same interview would thrust her straight into the spotlight.
Coffey is now facing a massive backlash after she told the Spectatorthat cabin crew members who lose their jobs amid the coronavirus crisis should simply retrain to be care workers or nurses instead.
‘How do we help draw out of [workers like cabin crew] the transferable skills that they have and that could be working in social care?” she said.
“It may not be their dream job for the rest of their lives. But it may well be very useful: they get more money coming in than if they’re on benefits and it can also provide something really valuable and rewarding so there are those sorts of things where we are going to try and help people think through what it is they can do, even if it is only for the next two to three years.”
Coffey also added, “I’m sure other cabin crew as well who are male could make equally good nurses. It’s just whether or not people want that as a complete lifestyle change.”
Her comments were met withfury by cabin crew who face the destruction of their entire careers after the government has failed to deliver on its promise to grant the aviation industry sector-specific support as other countries in Europe and globally have done.
The social care industry in particular is rife with exploitation. Despite its vital importance especially amid a pandemic, it is among the lowest paid sectors in the UK – care workers’ average wage is a mere £8.10 an hour. More than half of social care workers earn less than the real living wage and are four times more likely to be on zero-hours contracts than the average worker.
And contrary to Coffey’s claims that cabin crew who have retrained as care workers would have “more money coming in than if they’re on benefits”, the typical care worker’s wage is so low that many of them have to claim Universal Credit just to survive.
But instead of calling to fix the broken care system where low pay and exploitation dominates – or press her government to ensure a future for aviation — Coffey instead has blithely suggested cabin crew accept a fate of poverty pay.
This isn’t the first time Coffey’s tone-deaf comments have sparked anger – earlier this week, Coffey said that there was a ‘silver lining’ to the coronavirus pandemic that the Tory party ‘can take advantage of’ to deliver on a manifesto promise of ‘levelling-up’ the country.
Over the summer, Coffey again publicly demonstrated her crassness after responding to a tweet by footballer Marcus Rashford, who was then pressing the government to extend free school meal vouchers throughout the summer.
Rashford tweeted, “when you head to the fridge to grab the milk, stop and recognise that parents of at least 200,000 children across the country this morning are waking up to empty shelving.”
He also wrote, “When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown.”
Coffey then responded to Rashford’s tweets, noting that “water cannot be disconnected though” to which she faced a barrage of criticism. She later her deleted her tweet.
Responding to Coffey’s latest comments on the suggestion that cabin crew should retrain as care workers, Unite national officer for civil air transport Oliver Richardson said, “Therese Coffey’s comments are just crass. They are as insensitive as they are ill informed and only serve to show how out of touch government is.
“Aviation workers throughout the UK are worried sick about their future and quite literally don’t know if they’ll have a job next week,” he added. “Tens of thousands of aviation workers have already lost their jobs. Her focus as minister of work should be on saving as many jobs as possible, not throwing in the towel on a vitally important sector of the economy.
“The real problem is that the aviation industry is still waiting for the support package promised by the chancellor seven months ago,” he went on to say. “It is this delay and the failure to echo the support that other countries have provided for their aviation sectors that is seeing UK jobs go at an alarming rate.
“If the minister really wants to help aviation workers she should speak to her colleague the chancellor and get him to deliver the financial support he promised way back in March.”
By Hajera Blagg