Britain’s army of homecare workers are all too often left languishing below the minimum wage, says PAUL DONOVAN
There has been much concern expressed about the standard of home care being provided to vulnerable people, but little seems to have been said about the appalling employment conditions that many care workers are forced to endure.
Low pay, often below the minimum wage, and zero-hours contracts are common, no doubt having a knock-on effect regarding the standard of care being delivered. Mary Smith is a care worker in Reading.
“I am on a zero-hours contract, which means I can be sitting around for three or four days, or even a week, waiting for work. There is no payment for travel. I’m often irate by the time I arrive at the call,” she says.
“If you query payment, then you may not get work for a couple of weeks. It is not possible to draw benefits, so if you are the only breadwinner then you could be left without food for the rest of the week.”
The employers, it seems, hold all the cards.
“You never know how much work there is going to be. It is impossible to plan life. If you turn down work then you can get cut off the following week. A lot of people I know are trying to get out of the care sector. The people who really suffer are the members of the public receiving the care.”
Many of the problems in the care sector emanate from the use of zero-hours contracts, which puts the employee at a distinct disadvantage.
They have to effectively be on call all the time but, as Mary has found, this can mean back-to-back calls or long periods when there is no work.
This power to allocate work can also be misused, so a worker who complains or maybe tries to bring in a trade union can be discriminated against by not being given work.
The workers are also only paid for the time they are effectively on the job. Melanie, who worked for a care company in Oxfordshire, recalled getting just £1 for a visit she did, that lasted 13 minutes.
“Some companies break down what you get per visit. In the company I worked for, one person got 79p for a visit,” says Melanie, who has now moved on to a company that pays a set salary for the week.
The poor treatment of the care workforce does result in many cases in the clients not receiving as exemplary a service as might otherwise be the case.
Melanie tells of the effects of being tired and exhausted as a result of rushing from call to call. “There is often no time to talk to the person.
Once you’ve done the food, administered the different drugs etc, there is no time to talk, yet sometimes the carer is the only person that that person will see in the whole day,” she says.
The non-payment of the care workers for travelling time means many are not being paid even the minimum wage. The sector is known for its notoriously bad employment practices.
In a study covering the past two years HM Revenue and Customs reported £340,000 owed due to underpayment of 2,400 care workers.
And £110,000 in penalties were imposed for breaking the law.
HMRC found that the main reasons offered by care sector employers for not paying the minimum wage included: making illegal deductions such as uniform costs; not paying for time spent training or travelling between care jobs; charges for living accommodation; incorrect hourly pay rates and incorrect use of apprentice rates.
A study by King’s College London’s social care workforce research unit estimated that there were between 150,000 and 220,000 care workers being paid below the minimum wage.
What is more, with the growing pressure on local authorities to cut back, they have been reducing what they are prepared to pay the care companies.
United Kingdom Homecare Association, which represents private firms, estimates that a homecare company needs to be paid a minimum of £14.95 an hour by a council to comply with wage law and meet all costs of training.
It said that one in five councils were now paying £11 or less, the lowest being £8.98 an hour.
The association said that nine out of 10 councils had cut fees paid to its members in the past year, meaning firms “face a constant struggle to comply with minimum wage law.
The alternative will be for them to cease trading with councils or go out of business.”
There does, though, seem to be a growing awareness of the poor conditions being offered to workers in the industry and the subsequent effect this can have on standards of care.
Even Care Minister Norman Lamb accepted that “there are still too many examples of employers paying people less than the minimum wage by not taking account of travel time,” which is “intolerable.”
Both Unison and community organisers Citizens UK have been campaigning for the living wage (£8.80 in London and £7.65 an hour outside) for care workers.
Unison has asked all councils in the country to sign up to its Ethical Care Charter.
The charter commits councils to buying homecare only from providers that give workers enough time, training and a living wage, so they can provide better quality care for the service users who rely on it.
“Poor pay and conditions, including zero-hours contracts and non-payment for travel time and training, mean that many care workers are unable to provide the level of care that they would like to give,” said Unison general secretary Dave Prentis.
“It is essential that homecare workers receive decent working conditions, including secure employment and a living wage, which makes it possible for them to stay in the job and focus on giving the best possible care.”
Among those picking up the challenge are Islington and Brent councils in London which now only offer contracts to companies paying care workers the London living wage.
Citizens UK has initiated the I Care About Care campaign, which seeks to get employers to sign up to a compact which comprises a commitment to pay the living wage, payment for travel time, accredited training for carers and a minimum of 30 minutes per call.
“The campaign is to ensure that the carers are as cared about as the cared for.
Care is presently the Cinderella of the welfare state and our members are determined to challenge this,” said Neil Jameson, executive director of Citizens UK.
“This is not just about pay but also about the time we spend with each other and respect for the profession.”
So although the working conditions in the care sector remain parlous, there are signs of improvement with some genuinely good employers out there.
What does seem certain is that better care provision is only likely to come about if the care workers receive decent pay and terms of employment.