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Work fit for heroes: the need to revalue the services provided by our social care workers

May 18th 2020

The impact of the coronavirus has underlined the importance of social care workers for our communities. Huw Anslow argues that improving their rewards and protections must be prioritised.

The last week has seen increasing debate over the merits of retaining lockdown measures. Discussions have been dominated by the need to balance economic concerns, against the risk of a second outbreak just as infection rates decrease.

On 12th May, UK Government announced the extension of the Job Retention Scheme until the end of October. Economic hibernation will continue, and millions of jobs that would otherwise face redundancy are safe for the time being.

But this debate – and subsequent relief – should not mask a fundamental problem that was true before the pandemic and is continuing throughout: that our labour market is broken. For people in many sectors, work has failed to provide wages which reflect rising costs, has failed to give stable hours, and has failed to provide adequate sick or holiday pay. For some of these workers such as in hospitality or much of the retail sector, the effect of the pandemic has been to eradicate demand. The social care sector, however, is a core part of the coronavirus response.

Those working in social care are experiencing a huge increase in demand, as care homes (along with hospitals) are part of the front line in the fight to protect our communities against the virus. Up to 8th May, the number of deaths involving the coronavirus in care homes in Wales stood at 350, compared to the total number of deaths in Wales at 1,090.

Much of the recent political debate has been bent towards the financial debt being built up through the Job Retention Scheme and other support for businesses. As important, however, is the moral debt we are building up with our social care workers. Every day they are working to keep some of the most vulnerable members of our community safe, experiencing a higher rate of infection than even other healthcare workers.

Their reward is low pay, diluted employment rights, and – at the height of a global pandemic – a lack of PPE. The pandemic has painfully illustrated how social care workers are failing to receive basic health and safety coverage, endangering themselves and residents. These characteristics are emblematic of a labour market that fails to value the services they provide, whether in normal times or during a health crisis.

One way to address this is to prioritise the establishment of a Social Partnership Council, as outlined in the Welsh Government’s White Paper for a proposed Social Partnership Bill. These proposals have understandably been delayed given the circumstances. Serious thought must however be given to prioritise creating this Council as a forum to allow workers to better negotiate the terms of their work directly to Welsh Government and employers, through trade unions. It would also allow a formal and direct route to swiftly raise concerns about health protection in sectors including social care, benefitting workers whether they are members of a trade union or not.

This is not a solution in and of itself. It would, however, represent an important first step towards improving working conditions in this sector. This institution would also help to insulate the sector against future challenges, putting worker representation on a better footing to respond to both extraordinary and ‘ordinary’ threats.

The current situation cannot continue. The road to recovery, when it comes, must finally recognise this problem. Building a sustainable and equitable labour market here is critical to address the deficit between the services being provided, and how these services are valued.

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