How ‘Claps for Carers’ Didn’t Result in Better Conditions or Pay
The summer of strikes has come to social care – with striking care workers fighting for better pay and against precarity, reports Thomas Perrett
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It may be rail workers who hit the headlines in the summer of strikes. Over in Bristol and North Somerset, however, a smaller but equally forceful strike movement has been gaining momentum: the care workers resisting cuts to wages and sick pay and working hours – as well as fighting back against controversial ‘fire and rehire’ practices.
They did not come with the kind of headline-hitting interviews that made Mick Lynch the most famous union boss since Scargill. But they share the same fight.
Their industrial action tells a story about inequality and precarity, influential networks in the south-west’s biggest city, and how the nation’s clapping for carers never translated into improved workers’ rights.
Claps Won’t Pay the Rent
In the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic, the nation clapped its carers every Thursday, in tribute to the key workers who bore the brunt of the crisis and saved the lives of our loved ones.
But those claps did not amount to better pay or terms and conditions for an industry that was already wracked by low pay, precarity and low status.
Predominantly female, the care sector survives off zero-hour contracts and minimum wage salaries, with workers often forced to top up their wages with the Universal Credit benefit to survive. A combination of low pay, Brexit staff losses and the pandemic has led to soaring vacancies across the industry – there are currently 105,000 unfilled jobs in social care.
But rather than trying to retain existing staff and attract new workers, the care sector has failed to meet demands for better pay and conditions.
This has been illustrated by Bristol-based St Monica Trust offering a 4% pay rise to its frontline staff in April – a real-terms pay cut when inflation has hit 9.4%.
The pay deal on offer could see staff losing up to £5,200 of their annual salaries – at a time when a cost of living crisis is pushing more and more people into poverty.
According to UNISON, senior care workers faced weekend pay cuts of 21% under St Monica proposed changes, while other staff faced a 10% pay cut. It was this the staff wanted to prevent from happening – little wonder that 82% voted for industrial action.
“Care workers are typically told that they are valuable and important, but also that if they ever need to stand up for themselves, they would be told that they were neglecting patients,” UNISON organiser Josh Connor told Byline Times. “It is important that they know that they can stand up for themselves.”
“As the employers refused to negotiate, only one direction has been left available to the workers in terms of how to proceed,” said Connor, explaining how the strikes had evolved.
On the Frontline of theBattle for BenefitsChaminda Jayanetti
‘Fire and Rehire’
The pandemic proved what many already knew: care workers are key workers, keeping people safe and allowing the economy to function. But for employers, those same key workers are often treated as superfluous through the use of controversial fire and rehire practices.
The tactic involves removing a worker from their position and rehiring them on more precarious contractual terms. It has been the focus of industrial disputes at the supermarket chain Asda, and with the controversial sacking of P&O staff and their replacement with cheaper, agency workers.
“As workers go through the period of consultation, management are presenting an alternative where you are effectively saying that workers should agree to the terms of their contracts or lose their jobs,” Josh Connor told Byline Times.
“We have had care staff invited to meetings in which managers will accuse them of not signing new terms. There are few rights in employment law for reps to accompany them, as there would be in a disciplinary procedure.”
St Monica Trust has denied workers’ claims that they have been compelled to accept exploitative contractual terms, including cuts to weekend pay rates of up to 21% – arguing that the changes to working conditions are “an attempt to modernise the way we work”.
Louise Branch, a trade union liaison officer and branch secretary at UNISON in North Somerset, believes that the use of such exploitative labour practices could trigger a mass exodus of workers from the care sector.
She told Byline Times that “many care workers may just decide to give up and go to seek employment in another sector which has less responsibility, is less physically and emotionally exhausting and which pays better”.
Alongside the fire and rehire tactics is another controversial practice recently mooted by an increasingly anti-union Government: replacing striking workers with agency staff.
The practice had been illegal until Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng changed the law on 21 July – although unions have launched a legal challenge. The change has been criticised for not only harming workers’ rights to strike, but also for putting service-users at risk – be that care home residents or train commuters.
“Bringing in agency workers to cover experienced workers’ jobs is unfair to workers and also residents, who suffer from lack of consistency,” said Branch. “The care workers who are taking action at the Trust are generally the more experienced, more dedicated workers and it is a real shame that the Trust has not sought a way to engage with them and listen to their ideas for retaining staff like themselves and, thus, avoid the need for agency workers.”
Care home managers were able to circumvent the previous legal restrictions, as the old law only forbade the replacement of workers by agency staff if it could be explicitly proven that specific workers had been unlawfully replaced.
“Unlike in the rail industry, it is hard to prove that agency workers are being used in place of specific striking workers in the care sector,” Josh Connor added.
Agency workers are often hired on higher wages than contracted staff. Labour MP Barry Gardiner contrasted the pay rates awarded to agency workers with the meagre wages received by staff at St Monica, saying that “the employer, by paying agency rates to strike breakers in a dispute, actually makes the union’s case for it” and that “it shows that the employer actually can pay higher rates for the job”.
The Trust’s Response
For Louise Branch, St Monica Trust had a great reputation and “was respected for retaining more experienced care workers who would provide consistent, long-term care to residents”.
“Perhaps this strike has caused people to question the ethics of the Trust, in a way which they didn’t previously, if they respected the Trust as a decent employer with strong core values,” she told Byline Times.
David Williams, the Trust’s chief executive, disputed that the changes it has implemented has sparked resentment among care staff. “While we respect the right to strike, only 64 out of more than 500 of our care home colleagues voted in favour of strike action, with less than 20 colleagues staying away from work on strike days,” he said.
He also argued that the proposals aimed to “deliver consistency in the ways of working across all of the Trust’s care homes, improve recruitment and attract new workers into the social care sector”.
“This will help fulfil our ongoing commitment for the St Monica Trust to be a real living wage employer, while offering a package of enhancements that exceed the industry standards for the health and social care sector,” Williams added. “With the care home proposals now in place and the pay of any adversely affected colleagues protected for two years, we believe we have put our care homes on a sound footing for the future.”