The scandal of low-paid care workers

A New Year’s resolution? Let’s stop paying less than the minimum wage to those who care for the elde

A friend who is a care worker employed by an agency has a moan to me about her work. Repeated 15 minute slots with a client followed by a frantic dash to another part of the city she lives in to do the same again. Care in a hurry, on the cheap. Welcome to home care for growing numbers in Britain: some of our most vulnerable people cared for by a growing number of overly stretched and underpaid workers.

Her first concern is about the always rushed, and often inadequate, care this way of working results in. But, to my initial surprise, she also expresses anger about not getting paid for the travel time that necessarily eats up a large chunk of her working day. She typically makes 40 journeys between clients a week, sometimes 50 (not counting her journey to and from work). "Surely", I say, "you must get paid for this travel time, or else I don't see how you would be getting paid the minimum wage". Indeed.

It's well known that social care is a notoriously low-paying sector, with the Low Pay Commission (LPC) estimating that one in four workers get paid below £6.50 an hour. Far less well known is that many of these workers get paid less than the national minimum wage. A new and authoritative report by Dr Hussein of Kings College London now reveals that, even under extremely conservative assumptions, there are at the very least 150,000 care workers getting paid less than the legal minimum - and quite probably far more.

How is it that the law of the land is being so widely flouted? My friend's pay slip sheds some light, exposing the chaotic system of pay that is the norm for many care workers, especially those working for agencies or private firms: constantly shifting hourly rates of pay - varying dramatically by client, length of each care visit, time of day, and day of the week. The opacity of pay rates makes it hard for those affected to fathom if they are getting their legal minimum; indeed the LPC has suggested that some employers don't themselves understand their own pay systems. A closer examination, together with records kept by my friend of her travel time over a period of a month, suggests there are weeks where she has clearly been paid significantly less than the minimum wage (though there are others where this is not the case). And the real story is worse than the pay slip suggests. She had to pay for her CRB check. There are no travel expenses even though travel is essential ('I couldn't afford to work if I didn't cycle'). Regular mobile phone use is essential to stay in close touch with the office - again, no expenses are paid. It just doesn't pay to care.

In theory the legal position governing the minimum wage is clear: workers should be paid for time spent travelling between clients (apart from between home and their place of work). Less clear is who in government or anywhere else is taking the lead for sorting this out and ensuring that the law is enforced. Awareness of this issue remains very low, this Panorama being an exception, and care workers are not anyone's political priority (can you imagine a Cabinet member, or for that matter the media, making a fuss about this issue as they did about graduate interns?).

All those responsible for this saga claim they have an alibi - which is cold comfort to those being under-paid. The LPC has repeatedly flagged up these sorts of working practices as a concern - though it has never taken it upon itself to make specific recommendations to government about non-compliance which in turn would require Whitehall to make a formal response. HMRC, which is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage, says that it takes any allegation of non-compliance very seriously. But it is yet to prioritise this issue as an area for its 'Dynamic Response Team' (lagging response times suggest that it could be, err, a bit more dynamic; though this is in part due to inadequate resourcing). The problems of the care sector currently fall behind unpaid internships in the queue for HMRC attention; though it is said that the care sector will receive priority at some point in 2012. For their part, local councils argue with some justification that they aren't receiving enough funds to cover the full cost of social care. And the Department of Health, who are ultimately responsible for social care in England, concede that Dr Hussein's report is a 'cause for concern' but maintain that pay is a matter for local employers so it's not really a question for them. All the while, the law on the minimum wage continues to be flouted.

There are lots of injustices in Britain that are so entrenched and complex that they would take a generation to turn around. This isn't one of them. The minimum wage is supposed to be a right, not a nice to have. So here's a resolution that we should stick to: let's make 2012 the year when every care worker gets what they are legally entitled to.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.