SEVENTEEN home care workers, Unison members employed across the London Borough of Haringey, are taking care company Sevacare and the council to court in a dispute involving illegal wages over the widespread non-payment of the minimum wage.
The women visit people in their own homes and in some cases provide 24-hour live-in care. The Unison case – the biggest the union has ever taken involving home care workers – is against Sevacare, which until July was one of the companies commissioned by the north London council to deliver care.
The case against the two organisations – and a number of care companies who took over the contract abandoned by Sevacare – is chiefly over the failure to pay staff a legal wage, as time spent travelling between people’s houses was unpaid.
This can mean, says Unison, that on a typical day the women might be working away from home for as many as 14 hours, but could receive payment for only half of them. This can leave them earning as little as £3.85 an hour. (The national living wage – the legal minimum for workers aged 25 and over – is currently £7.20 an hour.)
Care workers who provide live-in care can earn even less, claims Unison. This work means regularly spending an entire week – 168 consecutive hours – living in someone else’s home so they give around-the-clock care. For this the workers can get as little as £3.27 an hour – well under half the legal minimum, and this hourly rate is printed on their payslips.
The workers’ zero-hours status means most have previously been too scared to complain about their treatment, conscious that if they did, they were likely to have their hours reduced or be given no work at all, says Unison. One of the women involved in the Unison case compared her live-in weeks to being in prison because during this time she is not allowed to leave the house of the person for whom she cares.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: ‘Without the dedication of these committed and caring women, and thousands of others like them across the UK, our care system would collapse. The government, local councils and the care companies all know that social care is in a dire state, that there’s not enough money to pay for the care that’s needed.
‘And with everyone living longer the situation is going to get worse. The blame for the social care crisis must be laid at the government’s door. Ministers must get tougher with enforcing the law so firms aren’t able to cheat their staff. More money must be put into care so that councils are not forced to tender contracts at a price they know decent care cannot be delivered.
‘No wonder 15-minute care visits are now the norm, and there’s widespread payment of illegal wages. Those paying the price for the government’s penny-pinching approach are the homecare workers – struggling to make ends meet on pitiful wages – and the people they care for.
‘Their often complex medical needs simply cannot be catered for within the short time allocated by the care companies. Meanwhile the companies are coining it in. Last year Sevacare’s profits were over £1m, yet bosses thought it acceptable to pay its staff illegal poverty wages. Unfortunately this sorry state of affairs is not unique to Haringey.
‘Up and down the UK, the experience of other home care workers is depressingly similar. That’s why Unison is stepping up its efforts to recruit care workers so we can help them stand up to their law-breaking employers and put a stop to these despicable practices.’
Until July Sevacare was one of the biggest providers of adult social care in Haringey. A Channel 4 Dispatches programme in April had previously raised serious concerns about Sevacare’s employment practices. Evidence suggests that national minimum/national living wage non-compliance is endemic in the social care sector.
A 2014 National Audit Office report suggested that as many as 220,000 homecare workers may be being paid an illegal wage. Nineteen local authorities – including Islington, Southwark, Camden, Greenwich and Tower Hamlets – have now signed up to Unison’s ethical care charter. This guarantees hours for homecare workers, payment for travel time and hourly rates of at least the Living Wage Foundation’s living wage of £8.25 an hour and £9.40 in the capital.
Earlier this year Sevacare was forced to settle a claim with Judith Montgomery, a former homecare worker from Bury. It had to pay her £3,250 following an employment tribunal claim that non-payment of travel time led her hourly pay to fall below the legal minimum.
• The pay of teaching assistants should be agreed nationally like that of teachers, then local councils would not be able to undermine their earnings and working conditions, says Unison. Unlike teachers, many teaching assistants now get paid only during term time.
Government spending cuts have driven local authorities to move them to these term-time only contracts, leaving teaching assistants with huge wage cuts, says Unison. Now teaching assistants in Derby and Durham are fighting a similar fate.
On Wednesday, teaching assistants employed by Derby City Council took their long-running dispute to Westminster, on the day they also took strike action. Workers lobbied MPs to support their case against the Labour-led council, which in June put 4,000 staff on term-time only contracts.
The move means some teaching assistants stand to lose as much as £6,000 a year, says Unison. The council first announced the plan last September, and has now imposed the contract that affects employees at 70 schools across the city. The council made an initial offer last month, but this was rejected by staff in a ballot.
Then last week Derby City came back with revised proposals that included a one-off compensation payment of £2,000. This was again rejected as it applied only to 250 teaching assistants across the city who work with children with special educational needs.
In Durham, county councillors met on Wednesday to vote on new proposals that would see teaching assistants move to new term-time contracts. Teaching assistants across the county are now to be balloted for strike action. Around 1,700 people across the county could be affected by a move to term-time contracts and the majority of those facing a pay cut are women.
They stand to lose as much as 23%; up to £5,000 each year slashed from their wages.
Unison said term-time contracts for half the school workforce are divisive, bad for morale and unfair, and that support staff should be treated like teachers, whose pay is negotiated at a national level.
General secretary Prentis said: ‘School support staff are among the UK’s lowest paid workers, yet they are paying the price of continued government spending cuts. The squeeze on finances from Westminster means that councils are operating within a financial straitjacket, but penalising some of the lowest paid workers in society is quite simply the wrong decision.
‘The impact on family budgets will be huge and could mean people end up in debt and relying on benefits. Teachers couldn’t teach without teaching assistants, and parents – who know only too well the value of the work they do – will be horrified at the way they are being treated. These employees deserve much better.’
The Derby City council term-time only contract took effect from 1 June, affecting about 4,000 staff. Level 2 teaching assistants were previously paid £21,000 per year, but under the new contract get just £15,000 – a cut of nearly 30%.
Durham County Council voted in May to dismiss teaching assistants and re-employ them on new term-time contracts, and this process is set to begin next month (October). This will amount to a wage cut of almost 23% and losses of up to £5,000 annually. A compensation package amounting to one year’s lost earnings has been rejected by staff. Unison wants a standard 37-hour week for school staff, payable all year round, and the reinstatement of a special classroom allowance of £1,200 that was scrapped in June.