A decent future for care workers

Providing care is an essential service, whether for older people or children. But it is also an industry where making a profit is the priority, where demands on the public purse are as much to provide sustainable business models to generate a return or finance highly paid chief executives dependent on public sector contracts as they are to provide quality care. Industry representatives such as Scottish Care, who represent the private care homes, and Community Care Providers Scotland (CCPS) who represent the not-for-profits, continually lobby the Scottish Government and local authorities over funding. They also sit on various partnerships, representing their interests, alongside staff unions, service user and carer groups, councils, and health boards. This includes being funded by the public purse to sit on commissioning committees in the local Joint Integration Boards. As one senior council officer observed: ‘We don’t invite Amey or Balfour Beattie to sit on the committees that draw up the contracts for roads construction but these people get to sit on the committees responsible for planning and commissioning care services’.

Their business models are primarily based on low wages, low levels of training, and an exploited, mainly female, workforce, including in some parts a high number of immigrant labour. UNISON and other unions also have some access to the various fora where plans are laid. Beyond the public sector, which provides only a third of care at home services and less than 10% of residential services, the workforce is not represented at all. The vast majority of the private and independent sector employers are, at best, not keen on union organising within their workforces or often extremely hostile.

There is a significant gap between the wages paid in local authority care homes and nurseries and their equivalents in the private and independent sectors. Union membership and organisation equals better wages and better conditions. Unions were able to ensure that the Scottish Living Wage (SLW) was established as the absolute minimum in councils and the NHS some years ago but the private sector held solidly to the National Minimum Wage (NMW). Indeed, many employers undercut even the NMW by refusing to pay an appropriate amount for sleepover working.

Seeking to address the issue of low pay, UNISON promoted its Ethical Care Charter asking councils to sign up to ensure that their staff and the staff of the private contractors were paid the SLW. So far seven councils in Scotland have signed up. However, recognising union weakness, UNISON lobbied for the Scottish Government to legislate for wages in care services to be set at a minimum of the SLW. Whilst not getting the legislation, we did get agreement that the rules for procurement would allow the enforcing of the SLW for care services. Scottish Care and CCPS supported the demands for the SLW. They recognised that their business models were not sustainable whilst they paid at the NMW and demanded the funding to raise pay to the SLW. UNISON supported full funding for services to include the cost of paying staff decent wages. However, questions remain as to the accountability of public funds generating profits in a sector delivering care to vulnerable people.

From October 2016, publicly funded care services are required to pay the Living Wage. The enormity of this achievement should not be underestimated. The scale of the pay rise that was achieved for care workers was unprecedented with the SLW applying to young workers who were previously paid at the lower levels of the NMW. UNISON will continue to adopt this approach to seek similar arrangements in the early years’ sector so that the women looking after our children are paid at least the SLW.

But the SLW is still significantly lower than that paid in the public sector and so the private and independent sector continue to employ business models that utilise staff paid at the lowest level possible. There are examples of organisations carrying out reviews of staffing that removed slightly higher paid staff replacing them with care assistants paid at the SLW. Therefore, the predominately female workforce continues to be exploited and drags down the public sector, always undercutting the public services.

The simple answer is to recruit and organise to make the employers increase wages and conditions, campaign for services to be properly funded and for them to be taken ‘in-house.’ Yet, similar to other industries, there is a need for proper sectoral bargaining where all employers, public, private and independent, are part of a single process that negotiates wages, terms and conditions (and funding) with unions in the sector. Scottish Care each year negotiates with CoSLA on the level of funding for residential care beds. However, the workforce is not represented in these negotiations and simply pick up the SLW crumbs from the agreements which are about sustaining a level of profit for these providers.

The Institute for Employment Rights recently published 8 Good Reasons Why Adult Social Care Needs Sectoral Collective Bargaining. It demonstrated poor-quality employment results in poor, and sometimes, dangerous levels of care, it argued such collective bargaining on wages and conditions is essential to ensure the viability of the industry. Good employers would not be undercut by bad employers, workers would have a consistent and decently rewarded career. Such an arrangement would give unions and their members’ genuine influence consistent with the Scottish government’s Fair Work principles. And, people receiving the services would have the security of knowing that the staff caring for them were not being exploited, had decent conditions to work under and could focus on providing the best care possible in a more stable working environment.

Stephen Smellie is Depute Convenor UNISON Scotland