“Care Workers Aren’t Valued – We’ve Been Treated Like We Were Nobody”

In Haringey, ten care workers who were paid less than half the minimum wage took legal action against their employers – and won. But their case is only the start of the fight for justice.

It took four long years battling their employers through the legal system, but homecare staff in Haringey have finally got the justice – and wages – they deserve.

The legal victory by ten workers against three care providers will hopefully send a clear message to others. It is a warning that there will be consequences – in the Haringey case, a £100,000 settlement – if they persist in paying unlawfully low wages to staff.

Last week’s tribunal ruling against Kaamil Education Ltd, Diligent Care Services Ltd, and Premier Carewaiting Limited also highlights the desperate state of the sector. It strengthens the already-powerful case for reform and the need for a national care service.

It’s abundantly clear that urgent action is needed to stamp out illegal wages, which are endemic in the privatised, fragmented and underfunded social care system. The staff in Haringey were employed on zero-hour contracts and were mostly Black women. They were looking after the most vulnerable people in society including the elderly, those with learning disabilities and dementia.

It’s an essential and highly-skilled role. Often they’re required to perform the duties of a social worker, doctor or nurse – all within the space of a short visit. These are frontline workers who put their own lives at risk during the pandemic to ensure others were cared for. Yet, for too long, they’ve been underpaid, under-appreciated and ignored, along with tens of thousands of others just like them across the country.

In the case of the Haringey home-carers, they were getting well under half the minimum wage. For that, they could sometimes be working up to 14 hours a day, attending more than a dozen appointments. The companies that employed them refused to pay for the time spent travelling between visits or the time waiting to go in to see the people they looked after. As one of the women put it: “Care workers aren’t valued – we’ve been treated like we were nobody.”

The hope is the tribunal’s ruling – that the Haringey employers breached wage rules – will have far-reaching implications and change all that. Other homecare workers could be encouraged to bring their own cases to reclaim what they’re owed too. As the UK’s largest union and the biggest in the care sector, UNISON is committed to speaking up for a workforce which is predominantly female.

They shouldn’t have to accept the unequal trade-off of poor employment conditions in return for flexible working. Zero-hour contracts and insecure working should never be a ‘reward’ for long shifts and antisocial hours. UNISON wants an end to these exploitative arrangements, widely used in the care sector.

Many care staff can be working all hours and still not have the money to provide for their families. Often they get the bare minimum if they’re off sick. No one should have to put up with rock-bottom terms and conditions, least of all those who do such an important job.

The government must also get tougher with employers so they can’t cheat their staff. This would stop law-breaking practices like those seen in the Haringey case. The care sector has been in a state of crisis for a long while, but it’s taken a pandemic to shine a light on just how broken the system is, the risks staff are facing and the appalling conditions they have to endure.

As a member of the social care Covid-19 task force, I know only too well how this health crisis has affected those working in care homes and in the community. They’ve been putting themselves in danger, caring for our friends and relatives. Many did so without protective kit such as face masks and gloves in the early days. Tragically, some have lost their lives, with coronavirus death rates significantly higher among social care workers than the general population.

The shocking death toll in care homes has been down to government neglect and systemic failings. Stopping the spread of the virus and preventing further deaths remains a priority. But how we treat the care workforce can’t be ignored any longer. It’s unfortunate that it took a health emergency for the wider public to recognise the amazing job these staff do.

A decent pay boost, and one that’s lasting, is vital. They work in an acutely underfunded sector where some companies put the bottom line before the interests of those they’re paid to look after. This shouldn’t be tolerated.

We need to take profit-making out of the system, ensure money intended for care is spent on exactly that and bring in proper standards. These are reforms UNISON has been urging governments to carry out for years. Employers must realise once and for all that care staff are not ‘nothing.’

That without the existence of these dedicated workers, our loved ones would have no one to provide for their needs.