How a Labour council and a union came together to tackle low pay in social care

6th October, 2017 3:15 pm

Home care workers in Salford will see their pay rise by up to 10 per cent this month as a new minimum rate in the city has been established at £8.30 per hour.  

The 300 workers who will benefit are employed by external agencies commissioned to provide social care services. Salford city council and the local NHS clinical commissioning group will now require the five agencies to pay the new minimum rate. The increase will be funded from Salford’s share of a three-year national government grant for social care.

Salford has an employment charter and policy-makers are backing up the aspiration to promote good employment with action and resources. The city deserves great credit for intervening in the pay rates offered by external agencies that provide care. For too long, some commissioners have washed their hands of responsibility for the appalling employment practices of some private and not-for-profit providers of social care services.  

Unison North West has been working to improve employment standards and service quality through our Care Workers for Change campaign. We have found significant issues in publicly-commissioned social care with some employers failing to provide their staff with adequate resources, time or incomes.   

Care workers are sometimes not provided with the necessary resources to do their job. Where employers skimp on providing enough pads, gloves and wipes it can mean that low-paid workers end up buying their own. Employers often provide only one or two uniforms. Long shifts and the nature of personal care work mean that staff struggle to get dirty uniforms washed and dried in time for the next shift.    

Care workers are not always provided with the time they need to care. We have seen home care rotas requiring staff to make up to 50 visits in a day, some of them timed to last less than five minutes. We know understaffing in some residential care homes means that staff are discouraged by managers from taking time to talk to residents. Too few staff at night can also mean that residents end up being put to bed very late or falling asleep in armchairs.

Care workers are not properly valued for the important job they do. The Salford initiative is a big step in the right direction on pay, but we should not lose sight of the fact than even with a 10 per cent pay rise, home care workers will still be paid less than the real living wage of £8.45. Away from Salford, wage rates are barely above the legal minimum of £7.50 per hour – and non-payment of travel time and inadequate payment for sleep-in shifts can bring staff below even that.     

Staff incomes are not just low but they are insecure. Zero hours contracts mean that household income can vary from week-to-week. These contracts also make staff vulnerable to reprisals from managers if they ever raise concerns about service quality.            

We believe that effective unionisation of care staff is crucial in raising employment standards and giving staff the security and confidence to challenge their employers if they are failing to provide sufficient time and resources for quality care. Our campaign work is winning support from politicians and councils – recent signatories of our community pledge include John McDonnell and Frances O’Grady.  

Salford has shown that where there is the political will and even a modest amount of extra funding, a progressive policy can be adopted that is of real benefit to low-paid workers. We will continue to work with policy-makers in Salford to further improve pay and employment standards in social care.  

We will be looking to policy-makers in other areas to follow the example in Salford and find innovative ways to intervene in the services they commission to improve employment standards. For more on our campaign work in the north west, please read more on Facebook or the Unison website. 

Paula Barker is Unison’s north west regional convenor.

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