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Speech at Nottingham 'social justice stroll', September 2023

Citizens UK is running a campaign to secure a real living wage for health and social care workers. I have become involved in the campaign in my local area.


To coincide with the launch of their Citizens Agenda ahead of the next General Election, Nottingham Citizens held a 'social justice stroll' around Nottingham city centre. As part of this, I spoke about my experiences as a home care worker, emphasising why improving employment conditions for social care workers is a matter that affects us all:

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"Hi, my name’s Rachel. I work as a home care worker and I’m one of approximately 63,000 domiciliary care workers in the East Midlands (Skills For Care, 2021). Our work involves visiting people in their homes to provide assistance with everyday life: getting up in the morning, washed, dressed, preparing food, taking medication, staying on top of housework, shopping for essentials, getting ready for bed and everything in between.


As the proportion of older people in society continues to grow, demand for social care services like those provided by myself and my colleagues also grows. There is an urgent need to recruit more care workers in order to meet demand. Unfortunately, recruiting new care workers and retaining those already working in the sector is easier said than done, because employment conditions for care workers are often very poor.


Median hourly pay among frontline care workers is well below the economy-wide average of £14.47 (Cominetti, 2023, p.3-4). And yet the true hourly pay for home care workers is even lower, because the vast majority of us are not paid for the time we spend travelling from one client to the next. This means that our real hourly rate of pay is always less than the rate stated on our contracts. As a result, it is estimated that at least 10-13% of home care workers in England are being paid below the National Minimum Wage (Hussein, 2017, p.1817).


The busiest times of day for care work are early mornings to help people out of bed, and late in the evening, to do the reverse. So, a full working day for a home care worker typically starts at 7am and does not finish until 10pm, with some unsociable gaps in the middle of the day and lots of unpaid travel time. Care is needed every day of the week, so care workers usually work every other weekend as well as in the evenings during the week. The hours are far from sociable, but their flexible nature often attracts women who have childcare or other caring responsibilities in their home life.


Part of what has locked poor employment conditions in place for care workers is the way in which the work itself is perceived by others. Traditionally, care for the elderly and disabled has been provided by family members, usually women. The provision of care on this unpaid, informal basis still represents the backbone of social care to this day. Yet, owing to changing lifestyles - people having fewer children, children settling far away from their parents, women having careers - it is more and more often the case that those in need of social care rely on paid care workers like myself. Because our work is intrinsically associated with a labour of love, something that people have been doing for years for their family members for no pay at all, the largely female workforce of paid care workers faces an uphill battle when it comes to asserting our rights for decent pay and working conditions.


That care work should be one of the lowest paid jobs in society is an expression of the low value placed on labour deemed as ‘women’s work’, representing a total lack of recognition for the high level of skill that is required to deliver care to a good standard.


The 2013 Cavendish report states that: “The phrase “basic care” dramatically understates the work of this group. Helping an elderly person to eat and swallow, bathing someone with dignity and without hurting them, communicating with someone with early onset dementia; doing these things with intelligent kindness, dignity, care and respect requires skill. Doing so alone in the home of a stranger, when the district nurse has left no notes, and you are only being paid to be there for 30 minutes, requires considerable maturity and resilience” (Cavendish, 2013, p.7).


And yet, many home care workers could take an admin job or stack shelves in a supermarket and get paid more.


Zero-hours contracts dominate work in the social care sector, meaning there are no guaranteed working hours from one week to the next. This makes it practically impossible to access regulated financial products such as loans and mortgages.


It is no wonder there are major issues around recruiting and retaining staff in social care. The cost-of-living crisis is the final salt in the wound.


In order that care workers are afforded the basic dignity of being paid enough to make ends meet, a real living wage for all care workers should be the bare minimum commitment made by any incoming government. Without this minimum foundation when it comes to pay, there will be no basis upon which to realistically expand the social care workforce in line with need.


If you’d like to understand more about the huge challenges facing social care, which left unaddressed are bound to affect us all at some point, I’ve put together some key information on a website called Homecare Workers’ Group. You can find this at homecarewg.org. In addition to amplifying the issues facing home care work and social care more widely, my hope is that the group can provide a space for home care workers to find community, support and solidarity, given that we rarely have a chance to chat properly with our colleagues.

We continue to take action on the real living wage both here in Nottingham and nationally through Citizens UK and you are invited to join the campaign. Please let me know, or speak to Pete, to find out more.


Thank you for listening, I really do appreciate your time and I hope you can find a few more minutes over the next weeks and months to think some more about the issues raised."

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This was an inspiring event to attend. I had conversations with people who had no prior knowledge of social care who said they had learned a lot, and with others about how to keep social care on the agenda over the coming months.


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