Protecting the right of EU Women working in social care

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2017 National Women's Conference
13 October 2016

On the 23rd of June, the country voted by a narrow margin of 52% to 48% to leave the EU. If we look at all the sectors that UNISON represent we will see women EU members working, and contributing having settled in Britain. With women making up 77% of UNISON’s membership, it is not difficult to see that Brexit will have a disproportionate effect on our women EU migrant workers. There are approximately 280,000 Migrants working in the UK care sector, from the European Economic Area (Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein) who have the right to freedom of movement through their agreements with the EU, as well as citizens from all 28 EU countries. Predominately in the last few years many of our social care workers have come from Poland.

Many studies have shown that meeting the needs of our ageing population is one of the most serious challenges that we are facing in Britain. The increase in life expectancy has generated a surge in demand for care giving by the social care sector as family members support has declined over the years. In 2014 Skill for Care estimated that there were 1.45 million people working in social care, more than half employed in care homes, three quarters employed as direct care workers and four fifths are women. EU women can be found predominantly employed in the social care sector with only a small proportion of those having British citizenship. Social Care is already under threat from the brutal cuts imposed by the Tory government and one would have to ask how services would survive without our EU members working in those sectors. The CQC annual report shows that the number of hospital bed days lost through patients being unable to leave because social care was not available to allow them to be discharged safely soared from 108,482 in April 2012 to 184,199 in July this year – a 70% rise.

Despite the valuable service that social care workers provide in meeting the needs of vulnerable people it is regarded as an unattractive sector to work in. It has historically relied on women to fill the vacancies with many of our EU members mixing part time work and other caring responsibilities. Many have also been forced to take on additional jobs because of the unreliability of zero hours contracts. Traditionally social care is one of the lowest paid sectors of the labour market. Traditionally social care is one of the lowest paid sectors of the labour market. Chronic difficulties in recruiting and retention of social care workers have led bodies such as the Care Quality Commission to emphasise that the employment conditions in those professions such as shift work and lack of career progression does not attract British born women. However the demand for social care continues to grow, and this has led social care providers to argue that they need to rely on migrant workers to continue to support vulnerable service users. The potential impact of a hard line towards EU members will decimate our public services putting more pressure on the NSH.

We are all too aware that our most vulnerable members of society are victim of the disintegration of the care sector due to the chronic underfunding of local authority budgets by central government. The services they are receiving would not function without the vital support provided by the women who fill vacancies in care and nursing homes, or in home care. A report published by Independent Age in 2016 found that 1 in 5 of the social care workforce were born outside of the UK which includes 150,000 working in care homes and 81,000 in domiciliary services. They further state that migrants from within the EEA have become the main group coming to the UK to work in social care and now make over 80% of all entrants. Their report also suggested that despite the arrival of migrant workers the adult social care sector in England faces a gap of 200,000 care workers by the end of this parliament. In these times of uncertainty one thing is sure, these services will not survive without these women coming from the EU countries.

The recent rhetoric and despicable attacks against foreigners has created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty for our women members. There has not been any clear indication of what post Brexit Britain will look like but the current government position is that curbing immigration is their priority. Many of our women members fear that they will be used as bargaining chips. There are a number of reasons why EU women members settled in Britain, because they fell in love with the diversity of nationalities, cultures, the freedom to express their sexual orientation, their feeling of being accepted for who they are, and because they want to contribute their skills. Many of our women members did not chose to work in social care just because it is a job but because they are caring and compassionate. Many of them have qualifications and experience and bring with them innovative ways and new perspectives in working with our vulnerable communities. We as a trade union have a long tradition of defending fair employment practices, better pay and conditions. We need to move away from the language of hate and xenophobia that the government and right wing media continues to propagate. Let’s not forget that we are still part of the EU and freedom of movement is one of its founding principles. We as a trade union have a long tradition of standing up to racism and discrimination. Our social care system will fail our most vulnerable citizens if our EU sisters lose their right to remain in the country they have chosen to make their own. Let us rally behind them and give them our unconditional support.

Conference calls on the National Women’s Committee:

1) to work with the NEC to produce the union’s materials in several different European languages and make them freely available online.

2) to investigate the options for setting up an in-house translation service to support our migrant worker members during the transition period as the UK leaves the EU.

3) Because women are disproportionately represented in low paid employment to campaign against the current government proposal of a minimum salary of £35,000 as a criterion for migrant workers to remain in the UK.

4) to work together with other trade unions to protest against holding EU migrant women workers to ransom for the government’s own ends.