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Care work is not easy – why are workers still not getting paid fairly?

·3-min read
Mencap and Unison have written a letter to Boris Johnson calling for the minimum wage rules to be reformed (PA)
Mencap and Unison have written a letter to Boris Johnson calling for the minimum wage rules to be reformed (PA)

It’s not often that two parties who engage in a bare-knuckle courtroom brawl then shake hands, agree to stand together, and even start shaking their fists at prime ministers with joint letters and press releases.

Yet this is what happened with Unison and Mencap after the charity won a definitive victory at the Supreme Court against a care worker backed by the union over the vexed issue of whether carers on sleep-in work shifts should receive the minimum wage while on duty.

Perhaps it’s because we’re talking about the care sector here and the care sector is a hellscape in which there are vanishingly few winners, least of all some of Britain’s most vulnerable people and their poverty pay carers.

First the background. Unison brought the case because its members were getting paid as little as £30 a night for these shifts, during which time they are expected to be on-site and are regularly woken up to deal with the challenging nighttime issues that are endemic to care homes.

Mencap, an operator, fought on the other side partly because it feared what might happen if the sector was landed with a £400m back-pay bill. It was concerned this could break an already creaking system, with fairly dire implications for the people whose interests it represents.

While the charity won, it wasn’t exactly jumping for joy. It issued a sober statement from CEO Edel Harris who called, among other things, for reform of the legislation covering sleep-in payments that she described as “out of date and unfair” while appealing for more money and meaningful reform.

Why would Mencap say that?

Because proper pay, surprise, surprise, leads to better outcomes for all concerned.

With the back pay issue parked, the charity and the union then teamed up to write a letter to Boris Johnson calling for the minimum wage rules to be reformed so that staff are able to receive it for all their shifts.

Since then? You’ve guessed it. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Johnson is an unconventional politician in many ways. But when it comes to his failure to engage with the care crisis, he brushes up that tousled mop of blond hair, has his wife Carrie help him dress up smartly, and looks like all the other prime ministers have over the umpteen years during which time this issue has festered in the background. Problem? What problem? Have you seen my pretty new union flag? Britain! Now kindly move along. Nothing to see here.

It gets worse, though, because there’s a sting in the tail to this story.

Unison recently surveyed its care worker members, who remember have been putting their lives at risk through the pandemic, with the aim of finding out what’s been happening since the court ruling. The results ain’t pretty.

More than half (51 per cent) of those who responded said they didn’t receive the national minimum wage for every hour worked, including all of their sleep-in shifts. Worse still, more than one in 10 (11 per cent) said their pay rate for sleep-in shifts had been cut since the Supreme Court opined.

That’s right. The care providers, and some local authorities, appear to have taken this as an opportunity to twist the knife. This in the middle of a recruitment crisis, because, duh, these jobs are not easy. They are anything but.

I have a problem with writing about this sort of stuff because it regularly leaves me with the feeling of kicking a heavy lump of lead without any appropriate footwear. Goodness only knows what it must be like for those at the sharp end.

Do we really have to wait until something breaks, with all the ensuing misery, to get people to wake up to what’s going on in this benighted sector and to chivvy the political classes into engaging with its issues?

Perhaps we do. But it might mean blood on the floor, and no I’m not exaggerating there.

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