Care workers “undervalued and underpaid for too long”, says Labour

Elliot Chappell

Labour’s Liz Kendall has declared that care workers have been “undervalued and underpaid for too long” following the publication of a new report warning of a looming recruitment crisis in the sector if conditions do not improve.

Responding to the release of research by Age UK this morning, the shadow minister for social care described the “immense sacrifices” made by care workers in the pandemic and stressed the need for a long-term plan for reform.

In its report, Time to bring our care workers in from the cold, the charity raised concerns over low pay and a sustained lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and highlighted the 122,000 care sector job vacancies needing to be filled.

Kendall said today: “Care staff have made immense sacrifices to look after our loved ones throughout this pandemic. Care workers have been undervalued and underpaid for too long, and it is time the government took action to fix this.

“We need a long-term plan for the care workforce as part of wider reforms to tackle the crisis in social care. The Prime Minister must bring forward a plan to reform these vital services by the end of the year and make sure our care workforce get the recognition they deserve.”

The analysis from Age UK today highlighted a disparity between the government’s approach to supporting NHS workers in the Covid pandemic and its efforts to protect employees working in the care sector during the health crisis.

The organisation argued that the 1.65 million people working in care have seen “only relatively limited support put in place” with poor access to PPE, testing, mental health support and priority access to shops.

It highlighted that the average care worker salary is £15,000 a year, meaning they are paid 24p an hour less than shop assistants, and that 54% were paid less than £8.72 prior to the latest increase in the new living wage.

Referring to a workforce survey by UNISON, Age UK said four in five care workers reported that their mental health had been damaged by work during the pandemic and that 42% of healthcare workers thought the government had not done enough.

It also highlighted that one in ten care workers said they were aware of colleagues who continued to work despite having Covid symptoms, fuelling concerns that poor government support for the sector is undermining public health objectives.

8% of those surveyed earlier this year by the trade union reported being told they would receive no pay at all if they had to self-isolate or if they had to take time off sick as a result of contracting coronavirus.

Commenting on the research from Age UK, UNISON assistant general secretary and co-chair of the ‘Future Social Care Coalition’ Christina McAnea said: “These shocking findings are a wake-up call to government that enough is enough.

“Care staff can’t go on being ignored, undervalued and left to exist on poverty wages. A wage boost is needed now to get them through the pandemic and attract new recruits.

“A national care service would also bring about long overdue reform of the sector. It would drive up standards, boost pay and training and ensure the care service is put on an equal footing with the NHS.”

Age UK acknowledged that while the public clapped for workers in the care sector throughout the Covid crisis, that “richly deserved gratitude must now translate into practical improvements”. The charity has demanded action in two key areas:

Treat care workers fairly by:

  • “Implementing nationally set pay scales that providers must meet, that achieve parity with the NHS for the same roles, paid for through extra government funding;
  • “Making an improved learning and development offer to care workers so they are better equipped to care for people with increasingly complex needs;
  • “Ensuring that any new immigration system allows for overseas workers, including those from the EU to enter the country easily, to take up a role working in social care; and
  • “Support the physical and mental wellbeing of care staff through a national initiative, locally implemented, as the NHS has done with its ‘people plan’.”

Protect social care workers and those they care for in the pandemic by:

  • “Publishing a workforce plan which addresses minimum staffing ratios and how to increase the number of staff working in care;
  • “Ensuring PPE of appropriate quality is readily available to all social care providers and really does reach everyone on the front line, not only those working in care homes;
  • “Continuing to distribute money via the Infection Control Fund to support providers to meet the extra costs of PPE, and to allow care staff to remain on full pay if they have to self-isolate; and
  • “Tasking ‘Skills for Care’ and the Care Quality Commission to work with social care providers to spread good practice in managing and supporting care staff through the remainder of the pandemic.”

Age UK director Caroline Abrahams said: “The lack of government funding for care often translates into exploitative working conditions for care staff, which in turn undermine the quality of care on offer to older and disabled people.

“Social care is above all a people business and if you don’t value the men and women who provide it you are undervaluing those who receive it too.”

“For the sake of everyone who needs social care as well as all those who deliver it we are calling on the government to treat care workers fairly and provide the funding for them to get a decent wage.

“Their pay and conditions need levelling up to match those of similar roles in the NHS. The pandemic has shown how much we rely on social care and how badly it needs to be reformed, and a good place to start is by paying the workforce properly.”

Labour has repeatedly demanded that the government publish its plans to fix social care. Deputy leader Angela Rayner called for a plan guaranteeing that all workers be paid at least the real living wage of £9.30 an hour in September.

Boris Johnson has on several occasions promised to reform social care since becoming Prime Minister. In his first speech after after taking the role in July 2019, the Conservative Party leader pledged to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”.

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