The UK has reached a crucial moment in terms of social care. Two key messages at the heart of UNISON’s Pay Fair for Care national day of action and rally today were that we must ‘stand up for care workers’ and ‘keep up the pressure’.
The event – co-hosted by the Future Social Care Coalition, a cross-party alliance of more than 80 organisations and individuals – comes against a background of crisis in the social care sector.
That has been compounded by 11 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised awareness nationally of the work that care workers do, but in a context of increased risk to their own lives as the virus took a devastating toll on care homes and the vulnerable.
Yet many employees in care homes, together with those looking after people in the community, earn less than the real living wage of £9.50 an hour (£10.85 in London). UNISON wants ministers to ensure every care worker is on the real living wage rate, as a bare minimum.
UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea told those attending the rally: “Care is part of the infrastructure of this country … it is essential.”
Ms McAnea was able to refer to an independent report, commissioned by the Scottish government and only released moments before the rally, which stresses that the care sector is “highly gendered”, with 83% of the workforce being female.
“Were 83% male, she said, “it would not be marginalised as it is.”
But she continued: “This is a happy day – we’ve got fantastic support. Let’s stand up for care workers. Make what happens in care, fair and deliverable.”
Care worker and UNISON senior vice president Sian Stockham told the rally a little of her own story – and why she has started a petition to government to create an emergency support fund to increase care workers’ wages.
“The general public is calling us heroes and going out and clapping for us – let’s put those claps into words,” she said.
Not only is pay in the sector low, there’s also an issue with zero-hours contracts, she added. “How can you budget when you don’t know what you’re getting?”
Ms Stockham, who at 66 is unable to retire and has two jobs in order to make ends meet, went on: “There have been times when I couldn’t put my heating on. A few years ago, I remember walking around with holes in my shoes.”
On misconceptions about the nature of care work, she responded ironically: “Oh, I’m ‘low-skilled’,” before explaining just a few of the skills her work entails.
Many speakers stressed the need for cross-party political support for the issue – ‘it’s the only way to get things done’ was a recurring theme.
Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow minister for social care, said: “Transforming social care is the challenge of our generation”, adding that, “We must make sure that all frontline care workers get the pay and conditions that they need.”
She – like many other speakers – noted that social care and the NHS “are inextricably linked”.
But not only was the current state of social care “morally wrong,” it was also “economically illiterate.” If carers have to give up work or reduce hours, or if a vulnerable person is stuck in hospital because of a lack of care, both are far more costly to the economy than properly funded social care.
The rally saw speakers from across the Westminster spectrum, from the charity and voluntary sector and from trade unions.
They included former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and independent peer Lord Victor Adebowale, the chief executive of the social care enterprise Turning Point, who stressed the need for a proper living wage for care workers.
Former minister for pensions Baroness Ros Altmann said that nobody disagreed about the need for an overhaul of the social care system, but “we need to get on with it” and “we need a new Beveridge,” referring to the 1942 report by Liberal economist William Beveridge that formed the basis for the Welfare State as part of the country’s recovery after WWII.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner – herself a UNISON member and former care worker – described the pandemic has having “created a hunger and a thirst for us to do the right thing”.
Social care “saves the taxpayer so much money in the end,” she said. Stressing the importance of it being a cross-party campaign, she added: “But no more jam tomorrow”.
Two panel discussions sandwiched messages of support, which included video calls from national treasures Joanna Lumley and Jo Brand.
“I’m backing UNISON’s call for a living wage for all the care workers,” said the Ab Fab star. “They seem to be the invisible part of our nation’s health system. They look after millions of people, they do it for practically nothing and some of them for nothing at all. It seems massively unfair that they’re the forgotten ones.”
Comic and former nurse Jo Brand – after apologising for her “lockdown haircut” – said that “care workers are simply not rewarded for the very, very hard work that they do. Pay care workers a living wage.”
Other messages came from Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey, shadow immigration minister Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Labour peer David Blunkett and shadow minister for employment Seema Malhotra.
As the rally concluded, Ms AcAnea reminded everyone: “Let’s keep the pressure up!”