minimum wage and poor working conditions-the reality of working in the UK’s care industry

For the last four years I’ve worked part time as a care assistant in residential and nursing homes across Leeds and Manchester, initially because a town near where I went to high school is a haven for Yorkshire’s elderly. Although maybe not the most obvious job choice for a teenager, I still found the work to be a generally rewarding experience. However after four years of low pay and sometimes tough working conditions ,especially at my latest job in a nursing home in Manchester,  I see no reason for us to continue to accept the unjust conditions we are subjected to as care workers.

 As the UK’s population ages care work is becoming an ever increasingly expanding and crucial part of the British economy. Yet the wages paid to its staff continue to be amongst the lowest in the country and working conditions remain tough. Out of the four homes I’ve worked for, only one paid more than minimum wage (£7.20 ph) and that was in Ilkley, one of Yorkshire’s richest towns. 

So in that way it’s not surprising that at my current care home in Manchester all care staff are paid minimum wage. To me £6.08 for any job is poles apart from a living wage in the UK when you factor in the price of living, bills and childcare. That those who work in care; one of the highest risk sectors both for staff and their clients with a comparatively large amount of staff responsibility get this is incredible. 

The standard shift length for carers at the home I work in is 12 hours, with a total one hour’s unpaid break split into two 15 minute and one half hour periods. For the remaining 11 hours it is rare that we get to sit down for more than a couple of minutes at a time, it not being uncommon to spend the entire shift on our feet. There are around 30 residents at the home, the vast majority requiring some form of nursing care which includes helping them get up in the mornings and assisting to bed at night. In between those times they require care throughout the day, whether that’s helping with eating at mealtimes, when going to the toilet or monitoring in general. Just under half are in wheelchairs which means that they need hoisting each time we move them, a crucial measure which places our far too small workforce under added pressure to get residents into the dining room in time for their meals. Most of the residents also have some signs of dementia which means that staff must constantly be alert and responsive to any potential risks to the patients as well as ensuring that someone is there to reassure them if they get anxious.

There are only ever four care staff present for each shift to care for all the residents in these ways. Alongside the home’s understaffing, our low pay, overwork and consequential fatigue our knowledge that any ill-thought out action by ourselves could result in injury and potential death to both the resident and staff adds to our daily pressures.

Sick leave, which is common in homes like mine due to the risks that come with a job spent mostly on your feet and dealing with sometimes heavy loads, is another area of worry always at the back of our minds. Despite the increased potential for injury due to unsatisfactory working conditions sanctioned by management the onus is placed firmly on the employee and not employer to ensure their own safety. Being granted only the statutory sick pay rate of £86 per week means that sometimes staff will continue to try work when they really should be recovering due to being unable to afford to survive on such a miniscule amount of money. This is the thanks we get for taking on a tough, high-risk job.

As someone who can afford to live off a part-time salary, I’m incredibly lucky compared to most of my colleagues. Several of the staff work around four shifts per week, that’s 48 hours, for a £267.52 weekly wage that barely supports themselves and their families.  Living as far as over an hour away from the home means that on the days they are at work their door-to-door return trip is over 14 hours. The Low Pay Commission has revealed that nationwide working conditions can be worse for carers, around 9% were reported to be receiving less than this minimum wage rate last year.

All of these considerations make caring jobs in nursing and residential homes like ours rank amongst the most crucial yet arguably most high pressured, exhausting and stressful jobs in the UK. Yet despite this care workers still remain amongst the lowest paid sectors and poorly treated workforces in the country. 

One of the main problems with conditions in care work can be attributed to the lack of substantial, wide-spead union presence. A 2011 report by the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London revealed that only 24% of domiciliary care workers are unionised. Unison’s national officer for social care, Helga Pile, suggested that private home care providers’ hostility to union activity could be deterring staff from joining unions. 

Whilst successive governments have addressed issues in care homes in terms of formal health and safety measures such as making mandatory the completion of a level three NVQ they have paid little serious attention to the pay and conditions of staff.  

So when David Cameron made his most recent welfare speech in June, his suggestion that his ‘reforms’ would create greater fairness is for care workers like myself, and the millions of other low paid workers in the UK, way off the mark. Focusing largely on penalising benefit claimants who he believes do not appear to be making an effort to look for work to make the system “really fair” will do nothing to improve the working conditions and pay of those like myself who undertake some of the most crucial, yet minimally paid jobs.

With the reality of tough working conditions and effect of minimal pay on many people’s quality of life there remain there are dwindling incentives to look for work. Cameron’s attack on benefit claimants has pushed people into a situation of Hobson’s choice, with the threat of welfare payment stoppages for those not actively looking for work and the spectre of day-to-day living financial costs alongside potentially unjust working conditions for those who are engaged in minimally paid work.

Recent reports have revealed that low income families are struggling more than ever to meet childcare costs in the UK, which are amongst the highest in Europe. The Daycare Trust reported that 40% of low-paid parents interviewed were considering quitting their job with another third admitting to turning down job offers due to unaffordable childcare. Childcare can now cost families one third of their incomes, with Nursery World estimating that this may increase by 2016 by an additional 62% for those on minimum wage, this largely due to the 10% drop in support by the Tax Credits system implemented earlier this year.

This article isn’t just an argument for higher pay and better working conditions for care staff alone. It’s an argument for a radical revision of collective priorities and conceptions of fairness that would lead to a more equitable distribution of pay on a societal level which would see low paid workers in the UK become a concept confined to the past instead of an ever present reality. Richard Seymour, in his book ‘The Meaning of David Cameron’ pointed out that whilst cleaners in London hospitals add an average of £7 to the British economy, bankers are costing our society on average the same amount. Whilst those who genuinely add positive value to the UK are treated with contempt those who gamble and squander large portions of the country’s finances are rewarded.  I think we can say what’s “really fair”, David Cameron, but it’s definitely not what you’re proposing.

Cameron’s welfare speech is the latest sign that we can’t rely on governments to win substantial reforms of working conditions; least of all a Conservative dominated one. Union presence within low-paid workplaces, especially sectors like care work where it has traditionally remained minimal needs to be encouraged. We must all fight at work to reverse fears, if legally unwarranted, that industrial militancy could cost people their jobs amidst a context of worsening personal economic situations and lack of alternative jobs. We must also push to inform all staff, including the increasing contingency of migrant workers taking up care work in the UK of their workplace rights. As I have found out at my workplace, this is no easy, straightforward task; due to the widespread reality of poor working conditions industrywide staff who have spent their entire working lives in the domiciliary care sector have come to put up with them due to never experiencing a more positive alternative.

Making links with other types of workers within our workplaces, alongside linking up with those in similar lines of work across companies will help strengthen our confidence in face of hostile managements. The decentralised nature of the industry, due to the prevalence of small, privately owned care homes, will make it hard to establish these links with workers in other homes that we have virtually no contact with. Yet it is something that we must continue to push for over time if we are to have any real chance of reforming our working conditions for the better.

Looking outside to examples of worker-led struggles within other industries that traditionally were not union strongholds, such as British Airways Flight attendants, the Dagenham Ford machinists and May Hobbs’ London Night Cleaners should act as an inspiration to many low-paid workers like my colleagues and myself. That we should not accept our current conditions and pay should be the beginning of a fight, not a dream that we feel resigned to put on the back burner.
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