UNISON urges illegal wage crackdown in homecare sector

A staggering 93% of councils in England and Wales don’t make it a contractual condition for homecare providers to pay care workers for travel time, according to a Freedom of Information request by UNISON.

While just 7% of councils in England require providers to pay travel time, the picture is even worse in Wales with none of its councils instructing providers to pay for travel time. 

Of the 98% of councils that responded, 79% admitted that they have never asked to see pay records or other written evidence about the pay of care workers employed by care providers they commission, in order to check National Minimum Wage compliance. 

By not paying travel time, homecare providers risk falling foul of National Minimum Wage laws. It is estimated that up to 220,000 care workers across the UK earn less than the minimum wage*. 

UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis said:

“The Government’s feeble guidance to councils will do little to curb the endemic practice of illegally paying care workers less than the National Minimum Wage. It is a scandal that more than 200,000 care workers receive less than £6.50 an hour. Many members are reporting actual hourly rates as low as £3.50. 

“The only way to stamp out these illegal practices is for the Government to tighten its guidelines to ensure there is a contractual condition between councils and homecare providers that workers must be paid at least the minimum wage. And councils must be required to properly monitor compliance.”

Just as alarming were the reasons given by some councils for not checking for compliance, which included relying on the Care Quality Commission and Department for Work and Pensions to carry out checks. Neither of these bodies is responsible for checking that homecare providers are paying employees the National Minimum Wage. 

Other councils responded by saying that the only measures they had taken was writing to their providers seeking assurance they are paying homecare workers for travel time, which they accepted at face value.

Dave Prentis continued: 

“The knock on effect of paying illegal wages to homecare workers is that it hits the people who rely on these services every day. Ensuring decent pay for care workers is all about improving the quality of life for the people they care for. A decent wage and more secure employment makes it possible for dedicated care workers to stay in the job and focus on giving the best possible care.”

A number of official reports have made clear the extent of this problem.  A recent investigation by HMRC in the Social Care sector found that 50% of the providers were guilty of not paying staff the National Minimum Wage**. HMRC also recently fined one homecare provider £600,000 for not paying their staff the NMW as a consequence of not paying for their travel time***.

The union believes that in view of  the extent of the problem, statutory guidance needs to make it a binding legal requirement for councils to act to prevent these illegal practices, rather than a recommendation. The guidance must specify the steps councils should take to ensure that they do not commission service providers who are paying below the National Minimum Wage. 

UNISON would like to see the following steps included in the Government’s guidance:

  • Assessment of the drivers for non-compliance that originate in their commissioning and procurement processes, such as underfunded contracts and inadequate provision for travel time and sleep-ins;
  • Transparency around the rates councils pay their providers, including the publication by each council of a breakdown showing how the fees paid cover the elements for pay, travel time, sleep-in, other conditions, overheads and assumed profit margins;
  • Spot inspections of provider payroll records and an insistence that clear and understandable pay slips and time sheets are provided to staff;
  • Measures to ensure providers allow trade union representatives to consult staff to ensure that the law is being complied with;
  • Regular anonymous surveys of staff working for commissioned providers.

UNISON has written to all councils in the UK, asking them to sign up to the union’s Ethical Care Charter. The Charter sets minimum standards to protect the dignity and quality of life for people who need homecare. It commits councils to buying homecare only from providers who give workers enough time, training and a living wage, so they can provide better quality care for thousands of service users who rely on it. So far, eight councils have signed up, with a further eight expected to do so shortly.


Notes to Editors

*Dr Shereen Hussein, Estimating Probabilities and Numbers of Direct Care Workers Paid under the National Minimum Wage in the UK: A Bayesian Approach, Social Care Workforce Periodical, issue 16 (December 2011)

**HMRC, National Minimum Wage compliance in the social care sector. An evaluation of National Minimum Wage enforcement in the social care sector over the period 1st April 2011 to 31st March 2013