“At number 10, once they had stopped clapping for the cameras, they partied behind closed doors. They quaffed wine and later cracked jokes about it while more than a thousand health and care workers lost their lives by simply doing their jobs.”
By Kirsty Turkinton, Care and Support Workers Organise
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that it’s not the Richard Bransons and Elon Musks that keep society running, it’s the working class.
From cleaners to shop assistants, teachers, refuge workers and of course care and support workers, it turns out we are the ones who are essential.
In the long months of the lockdown many of us made huge sacrifices, working long hours and extra shifts to cover for isolating colleagues, using our unpaid free time to wait in long queues so or service users wouldn’t be without food.
We battled for PPE, some of us having to make do with bin bags. The only Covid tests I had for most of the first year of the pandemic were only because I was selected at random for an Office for National Statistics study.
I got facemasks because my neighbour Keith offered me a few boxes from the 50,000 that the Vietnamese Communists gave to their comrades in Scotland to distribute among key workers. Were it not for our trade unions and informal support networks, we’d probably have never been supplied with adequate protective clothing and regular testing.
It was out of these demands that we formed Care and Support Workers Organise – a network of carers across Britain demanding better for the care system and for care and support workers. We work alongside trade unions to put the voices of care workers – and in particular our demand for a £15 an hour minimum wage – at the heart of the agenda.
Many of us went above and beyond government guidelines, with some care workers even moving into the residential home they worked. We were terrified that we could unknowingly transmit a virus to the people in our care, or bring it back home to our families.
Yet, at number 10, once they had stopped clapping for the cameras, they partied behind closed doors. They quaffed wine and later cracked jokes about it while more than a thousand health and care workers lost their lives by simply doing their jobs.
Now, almost two years on from the first lockdown, it’s back to the same old failed pre-pandemic normal for care workers.
Our sector remains on the brink of collapse with more than 110,000 vacant care jobs in England with a further 10,000 in Scotland. We are one of the lowest paid sectors in the UK and the majority of us are on the minimum wage. Cuts to universal credit means that many of us just can’t afford to do the job we love anymore.
The pandemic did not cause this problem, it merely put it in the national spotlight.
The roots can be traced back to the early 1990s where in a bid to cut costs the Tory government transferred the social care sector into corporate hands.
And costs were indeed cut, by slashing staffing levels and slashing our wages – effectively halving them over the next 30 years. And having introduced the policy to cut costs, the Tories now say the fact that care is privatised means they’re powerless to give us a pay rise.
Instead we’ve been given a pitiful rise in the minimum wage, which will soon be more than cancelled out by soaring energy prices, inflation, and the increase of the national insurance.
We have an ageing population. The shortage of care workers long predates the pandemic. But rather than recognising that the first step to solving the care crisis is to pay care workers a decent wage, the Tories in London and the SNP-Green coalition in Edinburgh will make any excuse to keep things how they are.
Just as the pandemic shone a light on who the essential workers are, it has also illuminated the ugly flaws of a privatised care sector. The bosses of private companies and the UK government both refused to take responsibility for PPE – leaving workers without.
Privately owned care homes have recorded some of the highest coronavirus deaths. Despite an appalling loss of life at its care homes, the private company HCOne has raised fees for remaining residents, while stashing its profits in the Cayman Islands – all while trousering tens of millions in public funds.
In Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire, the care home which recorded the second highest number of Covid deaths in Scotland is run by a company called Advinia. When large numbers of patients died from Covid, management at the care home used this to justify not recruiting additional staff.
If you live in England, I’d forgive you for thinking the care system in Scotland – and in particular the recent announcement of a National Care Service – is the kind of thing worth aiming for.
After all, its name is lifted straight from the mouths of grassroots campaigners who have been calling for a state funded service available to everyone. Of course, the £800 million which had been pledged is obviously welcome in a desperately underfunded sector, alongside the promises to remove charges for non-residential care.
But creeping privatisation is still creeping privatisation – even if it’s wearing a tartan facemask.
And the SNP plan does nothing to tackle the roots of the crisis. There is no plan for public ownership. Although Nicola Sturgeon committed to removing the profit motive from care in November 2020, this now looks unlikely to happen.
So we can kiss goodbye to any prospect of high standards, decent wages and quality care. Instead of a National Care Service we should all be demanding a Nationalised Care Service, democratically run, with workers collectively recognised through their trade unions, and with service users and care workers at its heart.
We need a social care system that genuinely puts people before profit. Our message is this: if you value care, you must value carers. And we’re not just saying it – we’re organising for it and we’re demanding it. Because power concedes nothing without a demand – it never did, and it never will.
So I invite you to join us – Care and Support Workers Organise – in our fight. If care workers win, everyone wins.
- Kirsty Turkinton was speaking on behalf of Care and Support Workers Organise (CaSWO). This article is an adapted version of a speech given at the Arise Festival #JohnsonOut rally on January 29th, which you can watch in full here.
- You can follow Care and Support Workers Organise on twitter here, and on Facebook here.