Christina McAnea, UNISON General Secretary Elect
Social care staff have been working on a ‘forgotten’ frontline during the pandemic.
They have been ignored and undervalued for years, but Covid has brought attention to their woeful situation. It has demonstrated just how much the sector desperately needs reform, especially pay and better treatment for employees.
Statistics show that care home workers and those providing domiciliary support are disproportionately affected by the virus. Compared with the rest of the population, they have been exposed to the virus to a far greater extent and put at higher risk of infection – and death. Black care employees fare worst, yet the reasons why are not yet fully clear.
What is undeniable though is that many staff were effectively abandoned during the first wave. Inadequate or a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) meant some tragically even lost their lives. Blame can be laid partly at the door of the government which failed to prioritise the care sector, and to appreciate the dedicated people who keep it running.
We can hope that lessons have been learned over the need for sufficient and accessible supplies of PPE. Wider and urgent action is crucial though to tackle underlying problems that enable poor employment practices to prevail.
The care workforce is overwhelmingly female, with large numbers of black staff and migrant workers among its ranks. However, many are among the lowest paid employees in the country and often exist on poverty wages.
Looking after those who rely on care support, such as the elderly and vulnerable, is an extremely important job. It requires immense skill and dedication. Yet the work is regarded as low-status and poorly remunerated in a sector that has been chronically underfunded for years.
Workers in high-risk groups also continue to feel pressured into going to work during the pandemic when they should be taking time off sick or self-isolating. Lockdowns have even taken placed in some care homes where workers have been told to remain on site if staff or residents become infected.
In other instances, some companies have refused sick pay to self-isolating members of staff, or even to those who have tested positive for coronavirus. Too many care workers have been placed in the invidious position of having to choose between risking people’s lives (including their own) or going without pay. These include black staff; an issue UNISON has flagged to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
UNISON wants every worker to be on the real living wage (£9.50 or £10.85 an hour) as a bare minimum and for action to be taken against unscrupulous employers.
This would help improve care and attract much-needed new recruits.
We need a national care service that ensures any increase in pay is implemented by employers. A national service would also drive-up standards, improve regulation, and help care become a more attractive career option.
UNISON has helped to set up a new coalition to lobby the government to make this a reality, putting care on an equal footing with the NHS. Launched last November, the Future Social Care Coalition is unprecedented in bringing together employers, providers, social care charities and politicians from across political divides. More than 80 organisations and individuals have joined including former ministers Andy Burnham, Sir Norman Lamb and Alistair Burt, as well as the National Care Association, the Care and Support Alliance and UNISON.
The Coalition is calling for an immediate £3.9bn emergency support fund for the care sector and a fair wage deal for low-paid staff across the UK. The aim too is to bring an end to poor employment practices, which are depressingly widespread across the care sector.
The government has an opportunity to put all that is wrong in the sector right, and to show it recognises the worth of care staff. That chance must not be wasted.