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

Let’s make 2012 the year when every care worker gets what they are legally entitled to.

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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New Digital Editor: Serena Kutchinsky

The New Statesman appoints Serena Kutchinsky as Digital Editor.

Serena Kutchinsky is to join the New Statesman as digital editor in September. She will lead the expansion of the New Statesman across a variety of digital platforms.

Serena has over a decade of experience working in digital media and is currently the digital editor of Newsweek Europe. Since she joined the title, traffic to the website has increased by almost 250 per cent. Previously, Serena was the digital editor of Prospect magazine and also the assistant digital editor of the Sunday Times - part of the team which launched the Sunday Times website and tablet editions.

Jason Cowley, New Statesman editor, said: “Serena joins us at a great time for the New Statesman, and, building on the excellent work of recent years, she has just the skills and experience we need to help lead the next stage of our expansion as a print-digital hybrid.”

Serena Kutchinsky said: “I am delighted to be joining the New Statesman team and to have the opportunity to drive forward its digital strategy. The website is already established as the home of free-thinking journalism online in the UK and I look forward to leading our expansion and growing the global readership of this historic title.

In June, the New Statesman website recorded record traffic figures when more than four million unique users read more than 27 million pages. The circulation of the weekly magazine is growing steadily and now stands at 33,400, the highest it has been since the early 1980s.