Food-banks, zero-hours contracts, pay-day loan companies – when David Cameron talked a few years ago about ‘Broken Britain’, few could have imagined just how broken Britain would quickly become under the Conservatives. More and more evidence is emerging about just how tough life is for many people that the main-stream media rarely notice, people who suffer very low pay, constant insecurity, and all too frequently the fear of debt. For trade unions, trying to organise poorly-paid workers in insecure parts of the economy is a noble calling, but tough to achieve. This week UNISON is launching a new effort to cut through the misery of life at the bottom end of the labour market, particularly for people working in the care sector.
Labour MP and pay-day loan campaigner Stella Creasey is at UNISON Conference talking to UNISON activists about the realities of life for workers in the clutches of pay-day loan companies, while UNISON officers are working on offering some genuine alternatives. Assistant general Secretary Roger McKenzie says that the care sector is a key priority for the union: “public sector unions like UNISON have traditionally been strong in large work-places like hospitals and town halls. As the pattern of service provision has changed, it has become much harder to recruit and organise people. Care staff are now largely employed by agencies, in many cases travelling in their own time to visit people in their own homes for very short visits. The pressures are intense, and many end up below the minimum wage. We’re organising to try and get councils who purchase the services to insist on a living wage and we’re also looking at ways to help people avoid the pay-day lenders. The union has a substantial welfare operation, and we can put people in touch with credit unions we can vouch for, giving vulnerable workers confidence that these are people they can trust.”
The union knows that the organisational task is a huge challenge, and will be looking to Labour to strengthen the protection for vulnerable workers: “whether it is zero-hours contracts or ensuring rigorous inspection systems, we know that stronger protections are needed” says Roger McKenzie, “and for that we need intervention by Government. But ultimately the key issue is low wages – if society carries on demanding care on the cheap, we face a rising tide of misery.”
Daniel Zeichner is a UNISON Labour Link Officer and also PPC for Cambridge . This piece forms part of our coverage of Unison conference, which is taking place in Liverpool this week