Where would we be without those who care for our loved ones when they are elderly or unwell? It’s not a job you do for the glamour or ease and it’s certainly not a job you do for the money. Care workers are often paid very little and work long exhausting shifts night and day.
Yet care work is as central to our functioning as a society as teaching and medicine.
A significant proportion of care work in the UK is carried out by foreign nationals. When the worker is a non-EU national, they are likely to be sponsored by their employer under current immigration rules in order to be eligible for a visa and have the right to stay in the UK. This means, particularly for workers who are not highly trained or educated, that they are vulnerable in the hands of unscrupulous employers.
One such group of Filipino workers was uncovered by the GMB union and featured on the BBC news programme ‘Inside Out', which was broadcast on 15 February 2016 on BBC South. They came to the UK to study for NVQs in care provision and to find work as carers. They were employed by Hailsham House care home in East Sussex. This care home is run by the Graham Care Group, which runs 7 similar care homes in total in the south east.
Leigh Day has begun the initial stages of litigation against the care home after allegedly unlawful treatment of foreign workers came to light following an investigation by the GMB.
According to these workers, they were told by their manager at Hailsham House that the company could not afford to pay them for all the work they had carried out and that they would therefore have to work one extra shift a week without payment. In practice, this meant they worked on average 12 hours a week for free. Obviously unhappy with not being paid properly, they complained to their employer about their situation and were told that it was their choice; they put up with it or leave. In reality, for them, this meant: put up with it or lose the chance to work in the UK, to financially support family at home and continue with the lives they had built here. This situation continued unchanged for four and a half years until the end of 2014, meaning a loss of pay for each worker of between £15,000 and £20,000.
It’s hard to imagine that this situation is isolated. 80% of care provision is delivered by the private sector. Between 2010 and 2014, the government slashed spending on residential care for the elderly by almost one fifth, according to Age UK. Combine the effects of this with a recent increase in the minimum wage, plus stricter immigration rules, and there is an even greater risk of companies cutting corners at the expense of the rights and well-being of their staff.
But paying vulnerable employees improperly will only make things worse. In the case of Hailsham House, the care workers ended up working more and more hours in order to make ends meet and to finance the shifts they weren’t being paid for. This included working 24 hours straight when they had to. Not only is this extremely bad for them, but it’s also not the standard of care we expect for our elderly and unwell loved ones. The argument is often made about doctors, but needs to be made about care workers too. Tired, stressed and badly paid carers make mistakes and get things wrong. Reform is needed in the care sector. Foremost for carers, but for the rest of us too.