"I could not exist, much less live a fulfilling life, without my carer"

Writing for National Carers Week, Hannah Buchanan explains why the role of carers in our society is so important, and why we should be more aware of what they do for us.

This week is National Carers Week. In my eyes, carers are a group of unsung heroes who do not get the recognition they deserve.

Of course, as human beings we all know what it means to care. We believe in things we are passionate about, we care about friends and those who mean something to us. But being a carer is something different altogether. It means taking responsibility for somebody else’s life while forgoing your own. It is not an easy job and is fraught with challenges but is one that is very rewarding not to mention necessary.

For example, I write regularly on many different subjects. But let me put a very simple question to you – how do I get to the computer to file my pieces? How do I get enough energy sustenance and nutrition to complete the task? If I fancy a night out clubbing with my friends, how do I get there and who is waiting for me when I come back?

In all three scenarios the answer would of course be with my carer’s help. I could not exist, much less live a fulfilling life, without my carer.

Having been born with cerebral palsy, the role of caregiving has always been extremely important to me. In the earlier part of my life my main caregiver was my mother, who brought me up as a single mother and undertook all the duties around caring for me. She did this with little help from the Government, and very little help from the outside world. She was one of the army of unpaid carers who devote their time and energy to their children with disabilities.

My mother nurtured me in many ways, encouraging my ability to read and write, and also musical abilities too. She wanted the best for me and fought to ensure I got it. This meant my mother made many sacrifices for me. She could not go out to work nor earn money because her life was consumed with looking after me. She knew there was nobody else to help and the buck stopped with her. Although we visited my grandparents regularly when I was younger, and I could be left with them for short periods, they were not in any position to offer long-term assistance.

When I was 18, I went away to boarding school to do my A-levels. I took them at Alton College and boarded at Lord Mayor Treloar National Specialist College, a facility specially equipped for those with disabilities. Once at university in Oxford, I was cared for firstly by in-house students on gap years, and then later on care was provided by specific agencies, enabling me to take full advantage of the rich academic and social programme Oxford had to offer. It was a beautiful city, a beautiful time and there was never a dull moment. It was the first time I felt truly alive.

Following university, I moved to a local authority facility in Hampshire where my freedom was somewhat curtailed due to staffing constraints. I existed but looking back I never really lived. This was nobody’s fault - it was just the circumstances I found myself in at the time.

But it was when I moved into my bungalow that caring really came into its own. After meeting many nice people I established a firm relationship with the carer and friend I have to this day. She encourages me to live life to the full and I couldn’t do what I do without her. She enables me to take risks - not risks that put me in mortal danger, but perhaps situations I have not faced before that I would benefit from. Can you believe that before I met her I had never experienced the London Underground?

I feel in control of my own life thanks to carers. I feel empowered and able to make choices. But at the same time,  I never take my carer for granted and miss an opportunity to appreciate them. It is true to say that disability is to some extent a social construct. Since I met my current carer I feel far less disabled than I used to. I feel stronger and more confident – ready to participate in life.

I used to struggle to come out the house. I didn’t have agoraphobia or anything like that – I was just frightened. I’d been cooped up in the disability hostel for a long time and was just out of practice with life. But my carer helped me to regain that confidence.

However, I also feel that carers are highly underestimated and underappreciated in patriarchal society. To me, the job of carer should be on par with that of doctor. Doctors save lives but carers maintain quality of life so that a hospital admission is not needed in the first place. They keep people clean, hydrated, well-fed and happy. They help them maintain their hygiene and dignity. In short, my carer enables me to be an active participant rather than a spectator in my own life. That is a great thing to help somebody do and I feel it is woefully undervalued, both financially and personally, in 2013.

We need to be kinder to carers, pay them better and value their contributions more. Without my carer’s help, I literally would not be able to get out of bed in the morning. Without her encouragement, I would never have whizzed around the Underground. I am glad she’s here.

 

Everyone needs a hand to hold. Photograph: Getty Images

Hannah Buchanan is a blogger with a specific interest in LGBT, disability, and feminist issues and the potential crossover between them. Follow her @HannahBoo3131

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.