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TUC CONGRESS 2021 Care workers must be given the dignity they deserve

The government’s persistent undervaluing of the care sector has led to a surge in in-work poverty – with women particularly badly hit, says GMB leader GARY SMITH

THE Covid-19 pandemic exposed many flaws and fissures within our society. 

Not least of these is the crisis within a crisis that is the care sector. 

Some 1.4 million, predominantly women workers, proved themselves nothing short of heroic in terms of the quality of care and dedication displayed through successive lockdowns, fighting every step of the way for proper PPE, workplace testing and vaccination programmes, while looking after some of the most vulnerable people within our society, at the ends of life. 

The care homes were some of the first areas to be hit by the virus, which spread like wildfire and caused some 39,000 deaths across the sector between April 2020 and March 2021. 

Forty-four elderly people died in one care home, alone, while 21 care homes reported more than 30 Covid-related deaths in the period. 

Our union members were at the forefront of the battle to contain the virus. 

They put themselves on the line each day by the simple act of going to work. 

They saw the heartbreak of families unable to say their goodbyes to loved ones; administered treatments; provided palliative care; eased the passing of the dying; and cooked, cleaned and gave dignity to the lives of others.

It is therefore a harsh truth that these key workers are denied dignity themselves. 

Time and again, while the managerial class were afforded the leisure and comparative safety of furlough, through homeworking, these people demonstrated their worth in stitching together civil society through their grit and self-sacrifice and by their skills, vocation and sense of professionalism at the sharp end of the workplace. 

Yet, when it comes to pay — as opposed to praise — the care sector is met by a deafening wall of silence from government. 

As a consequence, it is facing an existential crisis in terms of funding, staffing levels, retainment and recruitment with an exodus of 70,000 workers from the industry and with perhaps as many again looking to leave within the next 12 to 18 months. 

The reasons behind the haemorrhaging of the workforce are not hard to discern. 

They are rooted in the persistent undervaluing of the sector — of its workers and of the elderly, themselves — by those in government, and in the swingeing cuts imposed upon local government through an ideologically driven austerity programme. 

More than a billion pounds has been stripped from social care budgets in England since 2010, at a time when demographic trends — and the ageing “baby boomer” generation — have placed ever greater demands upon the service and its workforce. 

Make no mistake, this is an area in which an unyielding free market dogma has created class and gender inequalities in order to create a monstrous, and wholly avoidable, crisis. 

The Resolution Foundation think tank reported earlier this year that two-thirds of care jobs paid below the living wage in 2020-21, while 220,000 workers were not even paid the minimum wage. 

The result is both the growth of in-work poverty across the sector — with families requiring benefits and food banks in order to survive — but also the feminisation of that poverty. 

This situation will only be amended through addressing the questions of pay and the value that society puts upon the work of carers. 

Our members know full well that they are worth £15 an hour. The GMB knows that they are worth £15 an hour. 

Our mission as a trade union — and that of our fellow unions gathered at the TUC this week — is to make this happen. 

We do not expect government and employers to simply roll over at the passing of a congress motion — but we do consider that the passage of the GMB motion will signal our intent and that of the wider labour movement.

That intent is to give notice that our members come first and that the reforging the world of work is our priority. 

We are under no illusions that the “Fight for 15” will be swift or easy. Gains to the wage packet can be slow and incremental, provided we get to our figure over the lifetime of this parliament. 

We are done with posturing, claiming quick fixes and floating unrealistic and unrealisable sums on behalf of our members. 

We will start from where we are at, and never claim for any more than we can deliver. 

The Tory press this week is busy promoting a narrative that blames tax rises — and the Prime Minister’s breaking of manifesto pledges — squarely upon the costs of maintaining the care sector and meeting wage demands. 

So be it. Let us make our message to the country clearer, louder, more compassionate, more reasoned and more dignified. 

For ours is not only a moral argument. It is also essentially a practical one. 

The way to solve the recruitment and retention crisis in the sector is not to hide away the problems or to award one-off incentives, but to pay a skilled workforce properly. 

It is a simple matter of supply and demand, and of labour value. Furthermore, raising wages to £15 makes good economic sense as it would lift workers out of poverty and the reliance upon benefits, ending the effective underwriting of low wages by the taxpayer. 

This would, in turn, lead to higher yields from income tax and national insurance payments and, it has been estimated, return 50 per cent of the total increase in spending directly back to the Treasury.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the nature and reality of work back upon the agenda. 

It has brutally exposed the gulf that separates the working class who create, labour and care in order to maintain and grow our society from the hawks of rentier capitalism, the hedge funders and tax avoiding corporations who would seek to loot its wealth and rip apart its fabric. 

At the same time, changes within the largest unions — the GMB among them — have shown that today’s trade unionists, gathered at the TUC, are uniquely placed to speak for the many not the few, whose work improves the lot of all. 

The dignity, rights and wellbeing of our members comes above all else: the Fight for 15 is speaks to the very essence of our struggle and satisfies both head and heart. 

As a consequence, I look forward to meeting comrades at my first TUC Congress as GMB general secretary and very much look forward to their support for the GMB motion 57 as we embark on this new and important journey, together. 


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