How the government is failing carers and those who depend on them

Most carer workers are still being paid well under the national minimum wage. And the government isn't doing anything about it.

Huge numbers of homecare workers across the UK are routinely paid below the national living wage of £7.83 an hour.

Over 200,000 people, mostly women on zero-hours contracts, are being routinely cheated of their wages. Yet homecare workers provide a vital public service, which enables the elderly and disabled to stay living in their own homes.

The problem arises because most care workers are only paid for the time they spend looking after the people they care for. Many are not paid for the time they spend travelling between all their different appointments. But all this is working time, and must be paid as such. That means for all the hours that a care employee is at work, they must be paid at least the minimum wage. That’s regardless of whether that time is spent in someone’s flat or house, on the bus, in the car or walking down the road. If they’re at work, they’re at work.

It’s estimated that homecare workers spend a fifth of their working time travelling between visits. Not getting paid for this time has the effect of dragging their average hourly rate, which is already very low, well below £7.83 an hour (if they’re over 25, it’s even less if they’re younger).

So they can carry on breaking the law, many care employers seek to mask this. They produce payslips that are either incredibly complex or very short on detail, leaving staff with no idea whether they are being for all their working time or not.

Some payslips just state how much a worker is being paid, without any calculations to show how that figure was reached. Others provide a copy of staff rotas, but minus any breakdown of how their pay has been calculated.

Unison asked 1,000 homecare workers if they could tell from their payslips whether they were being paid for all the hours they worked. Almost two-thirds (63%) said they couldn’t, which gives a sense of how widespread the lack of pay transparency is in the sector.

Unison has continually raised this issue with ministers and civil servants, but while they recognise the problem, they’ve failed to take any steps to deal with it.

Our solution was to provide the government with draft regulations for section 12 of the 1998 National Minimum Wage Act, which if enacted, would have required employers to provide homecare workers with a written statement alongside their payslip. This would contain the information to allow them to work out if they’d been paid correctly, and received at least the minimum wage for all of their time spent at work.

It’s down to employers to show that they’re minimum wage compliant, not for workers to prove that they’re not getting a legal wage. So surely this should have been a natural step for the government to take.  It would enable workers to find out if they’ve been paid properly, and if not either challenge their employer or report them to HM Revenue & Customs.

However, the government has instead introduced a requirement for employers merely to list the hours on payslips that workers have been paid for. This allows employers to carry on paying illegal wages because the regulations don’t require them to separate out care time from travel time.

The government must get tougher with the care employers who play the system, and deny their workers a proper wage. Such unenviable working conditions mean the care sector suffers from a huge turnover of staff, which has a considerable impact on the kind of care that the most vulnerable receive.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt recently spoke of the need to “respect and nurture the social care workforce.” A simple first step would be to insist care employers explain to their staff how their pay has been calculated and show that they have complied with minimum wage laws.

Unless we address the widespread rates of illegally low pay, the UK is going to carry on failing both our care workers and the people they care for.

Matthew Egan is Unison national officer. You can follow him on Twitter here

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