NHS exploiting apprentices through low pay, warns UNISON

Many hospitals are treating apprentices as cheap labour by routinely paying them the minimum wage, even though they often do exactly the same jobs as colleagues earning considerably more, according to a UNISON report published today (Sunday).

More than a third of employers across the NHS are hiring apprentices at the statutory minimum of £3.30 per hour, when there are provisions to pay them much more under established Agenda for Change pay rates across the NHS.

You’re Hired: A UNISON Report on Apprenticeships in the NHS suggests health service employers are plugging staffing gaps with apprentices in return for low pay and minimal on-the-job training.

The report also raises concerns that NHS employers are failing to ensure that their staff on in-work training programmes either gain a recognised qualification or even complete their apprenticeships.

The report’s findings are based on information from 233 NHS trusts, health boards and clinical commissioning groups across the UK who responded to a UNISON Freedom of Information request.

You’re Hired analysed the pay rates for common apprenticeship roles including healthcare assistants, pharmacy workers and those working in administration.

It comes as apprentice numbers in the NHS are set to soar as a result of new targets and a compulsory levy on NHS employers. The trusts that responded have taken on an increasing number of apprentices, rising from 2,196 in 2012/13 to 3,325 in 2014/15.

The average pay for many of the apprentices in the survey for 2014/15 was less than £4 an hour, yet the minimum pay for staff on the lowest Agenda for Change band in England and Northern Ireland in that period was £7.31.

The UNISON survey found apprentices in finance had an hourly average rate of £3.43, while those in IT were on an average of £3.62 an hour. Administrative apprentices were paid an average of £3.93 and healthcare support workers, £4.22.

UNISON head of health Christina McAnea said: “This is a low-pay scandal and will get worse given the government’s push for the NHS to meet higher targets for hiring apprentices.

“All other NHS staff are protected by a nationally negotiated pay structure which ensures consistent, fair and equal wages. But when it comes to apprentices it’s a free-for-all. They are often left vulnerable to exploitation, having to take on all the responsibilities of full-time staff, in return for an hourly rate that isn’t enough to live on.

“At the very least we need a new national agreement on apprenticeship pay rates so the people on them get a fair deal and real career progression. Otherwise the reputation of the NHS will be damaged and we’ll end up with a two-tier workforce where apprentices feel undermined and demoralised.”

Notes for editors:
– Paul, 18, works in mental health, handling the legal side of cases and liaising between medical staff, solicitors and social workers. He earns around £3.70 an hour for his work. He has been very happy with his apprenticeship, and hopes to stay on in a permanent role if possible. But Paul feels ‘undermined’ by the level of payment he receives. He is covering for an ill colleague and taking on her workload, but knows he is earning considerably less than she does. He feels like he has do “twice the work for half the pay”.
– The apprenticeship levy will be introduced in April 2017 and is expected to extract £200m a year from NHS budgets in England.
– The target number of apprentices the NHS in England is expected to hire annually is set to rise from 17,000 in 2015/16 to 100,000 by 2020.
– The NHS in Scotland has agreed to pay all apprentices the living wage of £8.25 an hour.
You’re Hired: A UNISON Report on Apprenticeships in the NHS is based on responses from NHS employers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to a FoI request sent out in November 2015. The report is available here

Media contacts:
Liz Chinchen l.chinchen@unison.co.uk 020 7121 5463
Sophie Goodchild s.goodchild@unison.co.uk 020 7121 5546
Alan Weaver a.weaver@unison.co.uk 020 7121 5555