It’s nearly 20 years since the National Minimum Wage Act was passed.
It was a tough fight, but even those who fought hard against this most basic of protections now accept that a minimum wage is a good and necessary thing. And despite the persistent scourge of low pay, a legal national minimum wage is part of what makes our society civilised.
Today, the minimum wage is accepted and praised across the political spectrum. In fact, last year the Chancellor even announced a minimum wage increase as a key part of his Budget. Admittedly he’s tried to claim that it’s a “living wage” (it isn’t), but it’ll see wages rise for some of the lowest paid workers next week – albeit only for over 25s.
So would it shock you to hear that there are hundreds of thousands of people – mostly women – caring for some of the most vulnerable in our society being paid less than the minimum wage?
That’s the reality for all too many of those who work in the homes of our loved ones. To help them get out of bed in the morning. To dress them. To feed them.
Across our country those who the vulnerable rely upon are being let down.
Because although these homecare workers are paid for the time they spend with elderly people, they aren’t paid for the – often significant – amount of time it takes them to travel between appointments.
That means vitally important care workers are being paid far less than the absolute basic minimum that they should receive. Nearly 20 years on from the establishment of a minimum wage in this country, that should be a source of national embarrassment.
And it’s a problem that could be solved if politicians had the will and the urgency to do so. All that’s needed is for councils to insist that homecare companies pay their staff for travel time.
And yet 76% of councils in England don’t do it. In Wales, a whopping 93 per cent of councils don’t insist that companies pay staff the basic legal minimum for their working hours.
Unfortunately – despite some councils changing their ways, like the good people at Cumbria council who signed our ethical care charter last week – this mistreatment and underpayment of careworkers is still widespread. And it shows just how little some local authorities value care staff doing such a vital job.
Councils shouldn’t be awarding contracts to firms without ensuring they’re prepared to pay travel time. And the government should be putting more resources into a social care system that is already at crisis point.
Yesterday, MPs from several parties spoke out in Parliament once again over the scandal of low homecare pay. Their voices have been added the chorus calling for decent pay for those whose work matters so much.
It’s time for the government and councils to act, put a stop to the shocking treatment of this dedicated group of employees – and give our care workers, and their patients, the respect they deserve.