This International Women's Day, we should call for an urgent new law to pay care workers a minimum of £15 an hour

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A female carer looking after a female patient

By Professor Lydia Hayes, Professor of Labour Rights, School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool.

"The UK's chronic and persistent undervaluing of care workers now sits at the epicentre of our current economic woes: low productivity, high inflation, and labour shortages.

Decades of savage ineptitude in governmental funding and oversight of adult social care means jobs in the care sector are low paid, highly stressful, and often insecure. We don’t have enough adult social care workers to enable people to leave hospital once well enough.

Consequently, hospital wards are crammed, new patients treated in corridors, queues of ambulances are waiting outside A&E and frontline staff are broken. Put bluntly, people are getting ill, staying ill, and others are dying unnecessarily. Failing to invest in care has brought about an epidemic of disability in which millions of people are now too ill to work. Women are leaving the labour market as they resign their jobs to care for family members. We no longer have enough fit and healthy adults of working age to meet economic demand. This is fuelling inflation, crushing our productivity, and making us poorer. It's also destroying lives.

Over the past decade I've been researching the crisis of social care and its connection to the poor treatment and working conditions of hands-on care workers. Our national political culture has shown disdain for social care services, disrespected care workers, and treated disabled people with cruelty. The regulation that is supposed to ensure that care is safe and is delivered by a sufficiently sized and properly trained workforce has evidently failed. For many years, adult social care has been suspended in a perpetual state of near collapse. No remedy has been forthcoming, and the crisis has proven highly contagious. It has spread to the inner workings of our healthcare system, to our wider labour market, eroding the health of our economy and putting families under unprecedented pressures.

This is a crisis fuelled by sexism and disregard for the economic needs of the working-class women employed in care jobs. It is precisely because we have failed to pay properly for care and failed to invest in skills and professionalism that we find ourselves in such a mess.

What can be done?

The government should act immediately to fund and legislate for a £15-an-hour base-rate wage, guaranteed hours contracts and new systems of national pay, and conditions bargaining between unions and employers in the care sector in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This would rapidly improve the crisis in the NHS, it would halt the rising epidemic of disability, and it would release families from the inequality and poverty that arises from the undervaluing of care.

Crucially, a base-rate of £15 for all hands-on care workers and a right to guaranteed hours would signal government acceptance that care work is skilled work, not minimum wage, contingent work.

By legislating for national systems of pay bargaining we could turn a corner on our pre-pandemic folly of thinking cheap care would suffice and build respect for care work and public health into the fabric of our labour markets, our economic planning, our communities, and families."


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