Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/572/7093
Low wages, long hours, residents at risk
The uncaring care sector
Unique Care workers on strike against management bullying and harrassment, photo Huddersfield SP
LAST YEAR, the TUC Commission on Vulnerable Employment report highlighted the care sector as having "some of the highest incidence of employment rights abuse." Since I was 19 I have worked in the care sector with the most vulnerable people in society. People living in care homes suffer the consequences of councils' cutbacks and big business greed.
On 10 February the government announced a £150 million cut in spending on social care services for older people in England. The same week it was announced that the number of people over 85 increased by 4%. Of course there will also be more need for social care services now we are in recession.
While councils are closing local services, the big businesses running the care homes are charging high rents and allowing abuse to continue. Where I work, we regularly don't receive our weekly housekeeping money, which buys food and cleaning products.
The first time it happened was the day after we got paid. We carers, that company's lowest paid employees, each put a bit of our wages together to buy food for the residents. We had to wait another month to get our money back.
Many care workers are paid the minimum wage or a little above it. If I was to do no overtime I would only bring home £9,000 a year. More and more care workers are employed on zero-hour contracts and often get short notice of when they are due to work.
As the homes' residents require 24-hour care, most jobs are shift-based so workers are required to work days, evenings, nights and weekends, which can cause health problems and stress.
Dangerous understaffing, high staff turnover and staff sickness are common in the care sector. The companies running care homes rely on the low wages, which force people to work long hours. When I first started, I worked an average of 85 hours a week.
Twice I have gone into work on a Friday morning and come out on a Monday evening with no official break. One man I work with has done so many hours that, to make his workload look legal on paper, management have already filled out his time sheet for every day until May.
Yet still many care homes run short-staffed, putting residents and workers at risk. At my home, we need 12 staff on two day shifts and seven on a night shift but the company will only pay for 30 care staff a day. So, at least one shift must be one person down.
Last year, one resident was moved into a completely unsuitable unit and we were given no equipment to help us care for her. I cannot believe the health risks we took when we did not get the correct lifting equipment, but at the time you just think I have to care for this woman, this is what she needs.
Management didn't care about our health or hers; she was 'high dependency' and paid more than most to live there, a bigger profit for them.
Soon people were talking about "working to rule". No one takes their lunch break and many people work 13-hour shifts back-to-back. If we stopped they would be in a big mess. Management then said they would look into finding her somewhere else to live, but nothing was done.
People talked about walking out all together, refusing to work in the unit where this woman lived, even a whole site walk-out to get our point across.
Then CSCI, the organisation that investigates care homes, made an unannounced inspection. Normally we tell them what they want to hear, but not this time. We did not backdate paper work that was not filled in at the correct time. If they asked us a question we told them about the reality of working there.
When it came to the resident we were worried about, we told them exactly what had happened. The CSCI told management that she had to be moved out.
Steps were put in place to move her but unfortunately she died at Christmas. This was not as a direct result of the care she received, but people felt guilty that we were unable to give her everything she needed to spend her last days in dignity and comfort.
However, the ideas of walking out or working to rule are still there. Older workers at the home talk to the younger workers with no experience of industrial action. As yet no action has been taken but the mood is completely different to last year. I am known as a Socialist Party member and my colleagues have been coming to talk to me about politics in general.
Like most care homes, we work in shifts with day staff alternating between early and late shifts. On Thursday we were told that our hand-over period - between 2pm and 3pm where both shifts work together in order to tell people what happened - would be cut. We would lose an hour, this works out at 20 hours a month.
There was no apology or explanation, just our manager running around the site shouting it out and saying we were 'lucky to still have a job'. Management have no respect for us or the time and energy we put into our work.
It's a slap in the face that they think us 'lucky' for working ourselves into the ground. A loss of 20 hours pay makes all the difference to heating our homes, paying our rent and feeding our families.
The care sector employs women who depend on flexible hours to get around the lack of decent cheap child care, but they fall victim themselves to the poor working conditions and long hours they do to survive and out of fear of losing their jobs. Many young people go into the care sector looking for a career, but again end up working long hours to keep their heads above water.
Students studying health and social care are often brought into care homes for work experience and do the job for free, others doing apprenticeships are in the same situation. Those that are paid usually get below the minimum wage.
The care sector is rotten to its core. It relies on poor conditions for its workers and poor living conditions for the service users, all to boost profits. We know this is true of the whole capitalist system, and more and more workers are coming to the same conclusion.
In The Socialist 25 March 2009:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party marxist analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news