A think tank is urging the government to support low-paid care workers in collective bargaining to challenge exploitative practices.
Companies are exploiting confusion over employment rights to tell care workers they don’t have any, a new report has found.
Adult social care workers – who outnumber the combined staff of every cafe, restaurant and bar in the country – need to establish a collective bargaining process to challenge poor working conditions in an industry where zero hours contracts are the norm, the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) said in research released this week.
Improving employment practices would also improve the quality of care for service users, the think tank added, urging the government to take action to support the process.
Cardiff University researcher Dr Lydia Hayes, who led the research, said in the current system workers need to understand employment law to know when their employer is breaking it. But unsurprisingly, most don’t.
“Most non-lawyers do not have an adequate understanding of this complex and technical field, and my study uncovered evidence that employers are exploiting this.
One homecare company I visited hung a sign above their front desk that said ‘Do not ask for holiday, as refusal often offends’, and workers for the company were routinely misled about their legal entitlements.”
The IER report accuses companies of “seizing upon public confusions as a chance to avoid obligations”, adding that the variety of employment situations and complexity of employment relationships in adult social care makes it very difficult for rights to be individually enforced.
Instead, Hayes said a collective bargaining process must be applied between social care employers’ associations and trade unions.
As well as being damaging to care workers – most of whom are low paid women – the current exploitative nature of the industry, which is one of the UK’s largest netting between £20bn and £40bn for the UK economy, impacts service users.
Care work is increasingly complex and reliant on highly skilled professionals, the report says, but there is currently nothing to prevent employers from hiring workers with no previous experience or training.
Problems with care quality are exacerbated by a staggeringly high staff turnover – some studies have found around half of all new recruits quit within a year.
In total, about a third of care workers do not get basic induction training before being entrusted to care for vulnerable service users.
Many of those interviewed by Hayes for the report also said they felt forced to work directly for clients as self-employed carers, which means they have neither the legal protections nor supervision of agency workers.
And it gets worse. As it stands, thousands of workers doing sleep-in shifts in the social care sector are not even receiving minimum wage.
Five years ago, a tribunal ruled that care workers’ overnight shifts should be paid at minimum wage. But thousands of workers continue to receive a flat rate of £2.50-£3.50 an hour for sleep-ins, while the Tories maintain an ‘amnesty’ for the thousands of employers who owe their staff higher wages and back pay.
Last week, the government announced a further one month suspension of enforcement of minimum wage in social care, in order – they say – to avoid disruption.
Hayes said this could only be challenged collectively.
“Knowing they will not be penalised, thousands of workers are still being underpaid for sleep-ins by employers who can no longer plead ignorance to the law.”
The structural problems in the sector require a structural solution and sectoral collective bargaining is an evidence-based way forward.“
It is clear things must change, or standards will continue to fall.
Charlotte England is a freelance journalist and writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.