Low paid Apex care workers ‘gagged & searched’

Hampshire Unison members marching against the government’s austerity cuts
Hampshire Unison members marching against the government’s austerity cuts

UNISON on Monday condemned a range of draconian measures imposed on low-paid homecare workers by Apex Care, which include a gagging order, refusals to provide copies of employee handbooks and insisting it has the right to search individuals and their possessions.

The union, which represents 850,000 local government workers, launched a high profile campaign against the harsh practices of Apex Care in December.

It accused the company of being a ‘Scrooge employer’ for flouting National Minimum Wage laws and imposing unreasonable and punitive charges and sanctions on its hard working female staff.

Unison is calling on the Hampshire-based company to immediately withdraw a clause in its hurriedly put together media communications policy, which states that staff are not permitted to make comments about the organisation to the press without company authorisation.

Staff found to have breached the policy face disciplinary action and possible dismissal.

The company also insists that, despite employing workers on zero hour contracts, staff must have management permission to do other work including voluntary and charitable work.

It also reserves the right to search individuals, their possessions and private vehicles.

Apex has refused to provide staff with a copy of their employee handbook, referred to in the employee’s contract. Instead, staff may book an appointment to view the handbook in an office.

Heather Wakefield, Unison Head of Local Government, said: ‘If Apex has nothing to hide, why has it imposed a gagging order on staff and threatened to dismiss workers who speak out when the company is breaking the law?

‘Staff are being bullied and harassed out of employment and compliance with the National Minimum Wage is still a major issue.

‘Apex is starving our members of work, in some cases reducing weekly hours from 40 to four and withdrawing vehicles which workers must have to travel between clients.

‘It is adding insult to injury by plunging its workforce into a state of constant fear of losing their jobs or receiving no hours.

‘These workers care for the most vulnerable people in our communities, and it is only right that they are valued and paid fairly for the vital work that they do.’

Following the union’s campaign, Hampshire County Council suspended new work for Apex Care and the matter is being investigated by HMRC.

However, the union is urging the council not to wash its hands of a contract that is clearly failing.

Wakefield went on to say: ‘Paying staff below the National Minimum Wage is illegal and this is a problem plaguing the homecare sector across the UK.

‘Councils have a moral responsibility to ensure that the contracts they use to deliver services to the community are not merely contracts of convenience.

‘When private companies are failing in their duty, councils must acknowledge that the buck stops with them and put measures in place to ensure that employers abide by the law.’

Last year, Unison wrote to all local authorities in the UK asking them to sign up to the union’s Ethical Care Charter.

The Charter commits councils to buying homecare only from providers who give workers enough time, training and a living wage, so they can provide better quality care for thousands of people who rely on the service.

Unison’s campaign has forced Apex into some concessions, with workers no longer paid ‘by the minute’, a cynical tactic to drive down pay.

The company has also lifted its substantive rate of pay from £6.50 to £7 an hour, and claims to be paying staff for travel time.

However, the union has seen no evidence of this, with Apex refusing to provide employees with itemised pay slips to prove that it is now paying above the National Minimum Wage. Every employee is legally entitled to an itemised breakdown of how they are paid.

Also on Monday, Unison announced: ‘Unison and the other local government unions have lodged a formal dispute with the Local Government Employers covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the failure to make a pay offer on 14 January.

The letter to Sarah Messenger, the employers’ secretary on the National Joint Council for Local Government Services, states: ‘In light of the failure to make us an NJC pay offer for 2014-15 and as a result of your suggestion that this year’s pay offer will in any case be ‘pegged’ to the National Minimum Wage, I am writing to notify you that the Trade Union Side considers itself to be in formal dispute with you.’

It is signed Unison national secretary Heather Wakefield on behalf of the joint trade unions, which also include GMB and Unite.

The full letter is as follows:

‘Dear Sarah,

‘NJC PAY 2014-2015

‘I am writing to you on behalf of the Joint Secretaries in response to the employers’ decision to cancel today’s planned meeting and withhold the anticipated offer on NJC pay for 2014-2015.

‘We are particularly alarmed at the reason given for postponing the meeting – namely, the need to wait for the announcement of the National Minimum Wage to take effect from 1 October 2014.

‘Not only does this suggest that the employers are viewing the National Minimum Wage as the benchmark for NJC pay, it also means that the pay increase due to our members on 1 April is unlikely to take effect on that date.

‘You will appreciate that we will need to consult our members on any offer you make, making it extremely unlikely that our members will receive an increase on 1 April.

‘As you know, the National Minimum Wage is no more than a legal “floor” below which basic pay cannot fall. It is certainly NOT an appropriate level of pay for skilled and dedicated local government and school support workers, working against the odds following almost half a million redundancies, to deliver quality local services and support children’s education.

‘As you know, our claim is for £1.20 an hour for all NJC workers – to give the lowest paid the Living Wage and restore some of the 18% lost earnings for the higher paid.

‘In light of the failure to make us an NJC pay offer for 2014-15 and as a result of your suggestion that this year’s pay offer will in any case be “pegged” to the National Minimum Wage, I am writing to notify you that the Trade Union Side considers itself to be in formal dispute with you.

Yours sincerely

Heather Wakefield

National Secretary

Local Government Service Group

On behalf of The Trade Union Side Joint Secretaries

cc: Brian Strutton GMB

Fiona Farmer Unite’