10 January 2018
The House of Lords discussed the Institute of Employment Rights’ report 8 Good Reasons Why Adult Social Care Needs Sectoral Collective Bargaining during a debate on the human rights of older people.
In the publication, author Dr Lydia Hayes, a Cardiff University expert in the field, outlines the findings of her three-year study into the experiences of homecare workers and the impact on their working lives of employment law failings and inadequacy. She found multiple examples of exploitation, including employers misleading workers on the employment rights they are entitled to; widespread use of zero-hour contracts; and a dangerous dearth of training opportunities. She notes, for instance, that about a third of care workers do not even get basic induction training before being entrusted to care for vulnerable service users.
Aligning these findings with the results of previous research into the sector, and drawing upon international comparisons, Dr Hayes recommends that the reinstatement of sectoral collective bargaining for social care workers is the best way to improve both employment conditions and the quality of care.
Debating the issue in the Lords on 16 November 2017, Conservative peer Lord Balfe described the report as “a very valuable one”.
Summarising the findings of the publication, he said: “We often forget how many people work in social care. It is 1.1 million, the same number who work in all the pubs, restaurants, bars and cafés in England put together, but these are an unsung army.
“These are the people you see at 5.30 in the morning by the bus stop, going to help to get people up. They are the backbone of the social care system in this country, but sadly they often go unrecognised. Part of the reason for that is because it is very difficult to enforce individual rights if you are basically a lone employee of a privatised service.
“I know that we have saved lots of money through privatisation but we have also saved much of it at the expense of the people right at the bottom of the pile – the people who dare not claim their holidays and who are afraid to put their head above the parapet because it could mean the end of their job.”
The peer agreed with Dr Hayes that individual employment rights and their enforcement have proven inadequate for social care workers.
“We have one of the weakest law enforcement structures in relation to the rest of western Europe, and we have gone backwards,” he noted.
“We need a central collective bargaining mechanism which lays down basic principles for workers within this specialist field. The issue is not just about the minimum wage; there are also questions about, for example, sleepover allowances and casualisation. When we are told that employers cannot afford to pay the minimum wage, my reaction is that there is something wrong with the system, not with the employers.
“I appeal to both parties to look at the need for a system of collective bargaining and responsibilities – an end to the excessive casualisation of this sector and an acceptance that care for the older person, which is the heart of this report, has also to include respect for the carer, who puts so much into making life reasonable for many older citizens. We have a duty to them.”
Responding, Labour peer Lord Sawyer congratulated Lord Balfe for taking note of the IER’s report, stating: “the noble Lord made me revisit in my mind as I was listening to him the importance of making sure that we pay, train and look after care workers in the way we look after any other professional and do not see them as people at the bottom of the pile who always get attention at the very end when everybody else has had an opportunity to take their share”.
He went on to remind the Lords of the support care workers received when they were covered by a collective agreements, when the sector was still managed by local authorities and had not been outsourced to private enterprise.
“Their pay, conditions and holidays were all covered, and so was their training and development. It was not very good at the time, but it was still covered, and there were still opportunities that were laid down at national level. The thing that changed all that, as we all know but it has to be said again and again, was privatisation. The privatisation of the caring services led to fragmentation of employers, some of whom, to be fair, have been reasonably good at doing the right thing. Others, however, have been pretty lousy at it and have not paid people properly, motivated them or engaged them in what the real job is about,” he said.
“It is about saying that we respect people and value their work enough to say that, despite all the other pressures on us, we are going to make more resources available to pay them above the minimum wage, which is basically where they are now, and pay enough money to give them proper training and development,” he added.
He lamented the situation was unlikely to change under a Conservative government, but “it is a good test for the next Labour government”.
As predicted by Lord Sawyer, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health, Lord O’Shaughnessy, responding on behalf of the government, dismissed the notion out of hand. “I am not convinced that that is the right way forward. I do not think that it matters whether a provider is in the private sector, the public sector or the voluntary sector,” he said.