What a way to make a living | Working in care for 16 years

In the latest instalment of our What a Way to Make a Living series, an rs21 member discusses their experience of working in care and how wider changes to the care sector have affected the pay, conditions and experience of care workers over time.

Image shows four protesters outside Mencap protesting for justice for careworkers in March 2021. Photo credit: Care and Support Workers Organise.
Photo credit: Care and Support Workers Organise, March 2021.

Care work should be one of the most rewarding jobs a person could do. Unfortunately in our society it is often one of the worst. Below are some of my thoughts and experiences from working for 16 years in social care.

During my first few years working in care I was employed by Social Services. Wages were not great but they tended to be better than in the private sector. Staff also had access to the local government pension scheme. Staff were encouraged to attend numerous training courses to improve their work practice. The council even paid for me to attend a three-day swimming life-saver course so that I could safely take service users swimming. 

Unison was the recognised union at the county council. After a fight for equal pay, many care workers received several thousand pounds in back pay. This was due to the fact that care work, which is predominantly undertaken by women and often women of colour, was paid less than other jobs of equal skill. 

After the coalition government came to power in 2010 they were determined to force councils to outsource social care to save money. I was no longer employed by the council but by a social enterprise. This resulted in a two-tier workforce. New staff were put in the inferior Nest pension scheme. Holiday entitlement was cut and pay was cut to the minimum wage.

Things got even worse when I became an agency carer. Often my shifts were cancelled on the way to work. Sometimes I was lucky to be offered one shift a week. The use of casual contracts is often the preferred employment practice by employers now. Wages are rarely above the minimum wage and there are an estimated 100,000 job vacancies in social care. If supply and demand actually worked, care wages would rise until these vacancies were filled.

A toxic combination of low wages, staff shortages and poor training means that carers can rarely provide the standard of care they would like to. Stress levels can be unbearable. It is often a challenge in care homes to keep all residents safe. 

Care managers are under pressure to respond by denying problems. In my experience, managers have claimed there are no staff shortages, putting pressure on the carers to work harder. If staff are stressed they will be offered six free counselling sessions to build ‘resilience’. Thus blame is placed on individual care workers when they cannot cope with unbearable pressure. 

It is very clear that care is not a priority and is instead seen as a burden under capitalism. This situation will only get worse with an aging population. Our fight is to build a better world where care is central to all we do.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Richard, the writer did mention Unison.

    Nevertheless, you are right, unions are the key for better wages and conditions.
    After a lifetime of working in factories and manual work, I was laid-off in the great recession of 2008. After two years of being out of work I got a job working for a Christian ‘non-profit’ supporting adults with developmental disabilities here in the US.

    It was very rewarding work, though hard and challenging. The staff did pretty much everything, changing adult diapers, cooking, cleaning and taking the ‘clients’ out on shopping/recreational trips.
    But the wages were so bad, little above minimum wage that some staff even had to get food stamps. This led to a constant turnover of staff, which had a detrimental effect on the people we supported.
    Meanwhile the (dozen) executives of this Christian ‘non-profit’ were on six figure salaries! So some were obviously making a profit.

    When some of us got together with a union, SEIU and started organizing, we saw the real nasty, vindictive behavior of management come out using the bosses’ anti-union playbook which I’d seen before at other union drives.

    Actually, it was funny that the company had told the workers that the SEIU had been to one of the companies homes and to take no notice of them. So a number of workers got in contact with SEIU!

    The organizing was really hard work, with working a shift then going around getting union authorization cards signed at workers homes (we had a friend in the office who leaked the names and addresses of all the workers). Often people had left the company or moved

    Some of the workers who supported the union lost their jobs on trumped up charges, people who had worked there for many years. The management had compulsory anti-union meetings with their $600-an-hour lawyer for everyone, but kept the details secret from me! I only found out about it afterwards.

    Despite hard work and a lot of community help, we lost. The union had a top down approach and some things could have been done differently.

    I retired about a year after the campaign, the bosses couldn’t find an excuse to fire me, though they made it awkward for me. I think the union was still fighting some of the unfair dismissals.

    Management is management whether private, charity or publicly owned, so yes unions are the key to better wages and conditions. But it’s got to be led by the workers.

    SEIU: Service Employees International Union

  2. Why no mention at all of trade union organisation? That’s the key to winning better conditions and discipling the mendacious managers who claim everything is fine.
    OK, union density in this sector is low, but not when the writer started out as a council worker: she/ he would have joined Unite, or NALGO/ NUPE/COHSE

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