This week, seventeen care workers in the London Borough of Haringey are taking their employer and the local council to an employment tribunal for allegedly failing to pay the minimum wage.
We should welcome such legal action by employees and unions, and minimum wage enforcement action by HMRC, particularly as it can take great courage for employees to come forward and make a claim. But the underlying issues in Britain’s care economy will not go away even if everyone is paid the minimum wage – particularly in London and other areas with a high cost of living. As the care workforce is dominated by women, this issue is about equality as well as poverty.
It appears that some the care workers in Haringey were paid for only some of the hours they were delivering care in older people’s homes, even where they were required to be available 24 hours a day, and others were not paid for their travel time between appointments. Over the last few years, there have been a number of similar cases, with most related to travel time – this seems to be a problem in both rural areas where distances are long, and in cities where carers are expected to travel by public transport. The rules on the minimum wage are clear: while travel time to a person’s normal place of work does not have to be paid, travel as part of the working day does. Some workers have already won payouts on this basis.
Over the last few years, the number of older people in the UK requiring care has risen steeply. At the same time, local councils have seen their budgets come under increasing pressure, although their statutory responsibility to provide care has not changed. This has forced councils to either reduce the entitlement for care or reduce the amount they pay the agencies that provide it: in most cases, they have done both.
This week’s report from the Nuffield Trust and the King’s Fund shows that the number of people receiving care from their local authority has gone down by 26% in the four years to 2014, with an increasing number of people in need getting no help at all. Frustratingly, this reduced spending doesn’t lead to reduced costs: the NHS is forced to shoulder the burden of delayed discharge (‘bed blocking’) for people who are medically ready to leave hospital and do not need expensive hospital care, but for whom no social care is available. The Family and Childcare Trust is currently working on research that looks in detail at the cost and availability of care for older people across the UK, assessing whether help is available in the places it is needed.
Caring for older people is a difficult and demanding job. For many, it is also highly rewarding: many carers feel that they have a strong drive to help people, and value the relationships they have with their clients. But as well as facing low pay, care sector working conditions are often poor – recent research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that pregnant women working in the care sector are among the most likely to report that their work posed a risk to, or had an impact on, their health and welfare before they gave birth.
There is widespread acknowledgement that the care system in the UK needs a major overhaul. Elderly people deserve high quality care in or close to their homes, and the NHS must be allowed to focus on people who most need medical treatment. But we cannot expect people to deliver care out of the goodness of their hearts, for a wage that won’t feed their own families: if we want our older people to be looked after properly, we must be willing to pay for it.