The high cost of caring

Posted on: 03 October 2011 by Alexander Hay

In this preview to tonight's episode of Panorama, we ask just how little we value those who look after the old and infirm

Care of a high standard, but at what cost? Too little if you're doing this for a livingBritain has never had its priorities right, as anyone who has borne witness to our creaking transport infrastructure or overpaid NHS managers will tell you. Nonetheless, only a fool would fail to realise that as we get older, and in more need of care, it makes sense to stop those who'll provide that caring from leaving their jobs for want of money.

Right?

...Research by academics at King's College London seen by BBC Panorama suggests that somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 care workers over the age of 21 may be earning less than the statutory minimum, now £6.08 an hour for adults.

The figure is at least five times higher than government figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which showed that 27,000 workers in the social care sector over the age of 16 were earning less than the minimum wage.

The research, conducted by Dr Shereen Hussein, a social care workforce expert at the university suggests that about 9% of the care work force in England is paid under the national minimum wage.

"If we assume the same thing happens across the UK as a whole, you are talking about 150,000 to 200,000 care workers.

"And even those who are paid just above minimum wage, it is very near the minimum wage," Dr Hussein estimated...

Usually, prices are forced down by an over-supply of labour. Given that caring is strenuous, often dirty and stressful work, you'd think employers would have to pay a lot more in order to keep their staff in place. This doesn't, of course, factor in two conflicting human drives – greed and the ability to do over one's peers in order to gain an advantage, and altruism, the need to help others and not abandon them at their time of need.

Thus, it is reasonably safe to say that bosses are greedy, but their employees are motivated by altruism. This explains why wages are so low, as the employers know they can pay peanuts and the carers won't dare complain or leave because they'd be abandoning their duty to those they care for. How else to explain how such a blatant rip off has taken place?

...Susan said stretching the hours worked was common practice. She is paid £6.50 an hour but is not paid for her travelling time between patient visits.

When her travel time is factored in her pay equates to about £4.25 an hour.

In a previous job, she cared 22 hours a day for a patient with Alzheimer's disease.

Her hourly rate was £6.16 but she was not paid for the 10-hour sleepover part of the shift - even though she was often disturbed by the patient during the night - leaving her with an average hourly rate of £3.36 - well below minimum wage and making life a struggle.

"It is just so difficult, you have to count each penny. It is a matter of having a bag of potatoes that will last me a week for supper, or it is baked beans on toast.

"I wouldn't mind having meat once in a while but I can't afford it," the care worker said...

People like Susan are denying themselves what many of us would consider staple foods because of a dedication to their duty. That's something to remember the next time another debate on the cost of care is taking place. The most important parts of the system - the workers themselves - are in effect the cheapest parts of it too.

This is not good news for free marketeers, who think wealth inevitably trickles down, or Marxists, who think workers' unity is all you need to make things better. Neither have ever had to get up at 5 AM to bathe an elderly person and wash out their bed pan or know that you're the only support that person has got. What is clear is that this shabby treatment of carers is not exclusive to private or public sectors. Of the two million employed in the care industry, it is often through private companies in turn working for local councils – as was the case with the notorious Southern Cross. In any case, it seems that while abuse of the minimum wage law is rife, prosecutions are rare – only 7 cases in the last decade have come to court.

What is to be done? Panorama seems to be going for the blatantly obvious – enforce the law and make sure the minimum wage is paid. But a more radical solution is needed, and it should begin by honestly evaluating the social and financial value of the work carers do, so we don't have to. In any case, the minimum wage is based on a national average. It is still considerably below the London Living Wage, for example, and other relatively affluent urban areas can be almost as expensive to work in. Of course, employers could pre-empt matters and start paying a living wage, perhaps even start valuing their prize assets. That requires a better sense of priorities, however, and a Panorama episode is hardly going to bring that about.

[SOURCE: BBC]

Panorama: All Work and Low Pay is on BBC One tonight at 20.30. It can then also be viewed on iPlayer.

 

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Alexander Hay

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