Report: ’Perfect storm’ in care sector forcing workers to choose between ‘fight or flight’

Ben Wray

STUC: “Whether Government and employers like it or not, social care and early learning care workers are increasingly frustrated and are taking action”

  • Reports finds combination of equal pay discrimination, existing staffing shortages, ageing population and Brexit is leading many care workers to choose between “fight or flight”
  • Overwhelmingly female social care and early years & childcare sectors are chronically “undervalued”, with low pay and work insecurity endemic
  • Vacany rates increased to 38 per cent in social care, with another 80,000 jobs expected to be needed by 2035
  • Glasgow women’s strike last year one of many disputes emerging in care sector, which could be “crucial to the revival of the trade union movement”
  • Report calls for the Scottish Government to pursue collective bargaining and beef up work to tackle gender pay gap in low-paid, overwhelmingly female sectors

A “PERFECT STORM” in Scotland’s care sectors is leading to increasing staff shortages and industrial unrest, a new report by the STUC has found.

Published on the first day of STUC annual congress in Dundee, Scotland’s Care Crisis found that in the overwhelmingly female social care and early years & childcare sectors a combination of ongoing equal pay discrimination, existing staffing shortages, an ageing population and Brexit is leading to frustrations among workers which is generating a “fight or flight” mentality for many.

It states: “Whether Government and employers like it or not, social care and early learning care workers are increasingly frustrated and are taking action – sometimes this is collectively, through industrial action, and sometimes it is individually, through leaving the sector. But fight or flight, the only sustainable solution to Scotland’s care crisis is the involvement of trade unions in collective and sectoral bargaining structures which raise voice, terms and conditions and ensure a female-dominated workforce is properly valued for the crucial work they do.”

The report finds that both social care and early years workers’ are chronically “undervalued”, with one in ten social care workers on zero-hours contracts and with an average hourly pay of just £9.79, while 80 per cent of early years practitioners and 50 per cent of supervisors earn less than the real Living Wage.

READ MORE: Calls for new body to oversee fairness in Scotland’s social care sector wins Green backing

With an ageing population, the STUC found that the workforce of the care sector will have to expand by 80,000 – an additional 40 per cent of workers – by 2035. Currently, the number of vacancies in the sector is growing – the latest data of the Care Inspectorate shows 38 per cent of services reported having vacancies as of January 2019, up two per cent on the previous year.

This problem is set to be exacerbated by Brexit, which could lead to lower levels of immigration to Scotland. EU nationals account for 5.6 per cent of staff in the care sector currently, with 42 per cent of care services recruitment overseas coming from the EU.

It’s unlikely that automation will reduce the need for workers in the care sector, with care being among “the least susceptible” sectors to the fourth industrial revolutoin due to the essential need for social skills in the job.

The report goes on to criticise the lack of “practical and funded commitments” in the Scottish Government’s Action Plan to reduce the gender pay gap in low-paid, female-dominated sectors like social care and early years.

READ MORE: Glasgow women’s strike gets results as Council agrees to £500 million pay-out

A number of industrial disputes in the care sector, including the women’s strike in Glasgow in October last year, which was successful in securing a pay-out for a historic equal pay discrimination claim, are highlighted by the STUC, concluding that the care sector is “likely to see increasing levels of industrial action” going forward and is “crucial to the revival of the trade union movement”.

As well as increased investment, the report calls for collective bargaining between trade unions and employers across social care and early years sector, and for the Scottish Government to immediately convene a forum in the early learning sector to try to develop collective bargaining in what is a sector fragmented between council, third sector and private providers, a proposal agreed in the government’s Fair Work Action Plan. 

Commenting, Grahame Smith, General Secretary of the STUC, said: “Scotland’s care workers are sick and tired of being underpaid and undervalued. Increasingly, they are fighting back and taking industrial action. Unison and GMB care workers have shown that, not only are they winning, but that care workers and women workers generally are the industrial frontline of the Scottish trade union movement today.

“The Scottish Government’s recently published ‘Fair Work Action Plan is an acknowledgment that things need to improve.  To avoid more industrial unrest we need to urgently invest more in care and increase collective and sectoral bargaining to allow workers to have their voices heard.”

READ MORE: Outrage as 80% of private care practitioners are paid less than the Living Wage

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Enhancing fair work for social care and early learning and childcare workers is crucial for delivering high quality services and ensuring a workforce for the future. Attracting and retaining the right people, and raising the status of social care as a profession, is key to delivering quality care.

“That’s why we enabled, for the first time, adult care workers in Scotland to be paid the real Living Wage from October 2016 and provided resource over the last two years to cover the extension of the real Living Wage to sleepover hours during 2018/19. This is benefitting up to 40,000 people in the social services sector, while our Fair Work Action Plan includes a package of measures to encourage employers to champion and recognise the benefits of fair work.

“We are also committed to supporting strong Trade Unions in Scotland for the benefit of workers and our economy.”

Karen Hedge, National Director of Scottish Care, which represents providers in the private and third sector, said: “The report from STUC today reinforces many of the messages that Scottish Care has been highlighting through our research over the past year around the serious challenges facing the care sector.

“As a member of the Fair Work Commission, we have continued to emphasise that  the major issue for fair work in social care is the way in which we as a country continue to purchase and commission care.  The model we have currently is profoundly disempowering for the worker and profoundly negative for terms & conditions.

“We are supportive of systems which prioritise the worker’s voice but to do so within a system that still purchases care by the minute, that disempowers care providers and their staff, that treats people in a very transactional way in relation to commissioning, that prioritises getting more for less and which continues to devalue social care work, means that this voice in reality is a voice in silence.

“We are not going to sufficiently advance fair work if we don’t change the system.  To achieve fairness in the workplace, we need fairness in social care contracts and we need the issues outlined by both Scottish Care and the Fair Work Commission to be treated with real priority and urgency.  We cannot continue to talk about the importance of social care and yet fail to take significant action in addressing the crisis it faces. ”

READ MORE: Audit Scotland: More work needed to spread benefit of radical change in social care

Caralyn Blaisdell, early years lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, said: “This report highlights well known and persistent issues in the care sector, including early learning and childcare. Research tells us that care work is skilled work. It is complex, emotionally and intellectually. However, pay and working conditions in the sector rarely reflect this. National pay scales would certainly be a useful step forward.

“However, a key concern: we often hear from our students (who are early years practitioners) that they do not always feel listened to or supported by their unions. Any potential forum or collective bargaining process must include actual participation that addresses the concerns of the workforce in a bottom-up manner.”

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