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Opinion

Paul McNamee: Britain’s vital workers need more than just warm words

If we truly value the people who care for our sick and vulnerable, why don’t we pay them properly?

We don’t value the people who deserve it enough. And that means they don’t get paid enough.

In London last week, the Supreme Court convened to rule on a long-running dispute over whether care workers who stay overnight with those they are looking after should be paid minimum hourly wage. At present, some of these care workers receive a flat rate of less than £30. And for that, they need to be in attendance and ready to supply whatever help and support is needed from 10pm to 7am. They do not have to be awake all the time, but those who do the job say it is impossible to sleep as they have to keep a “listening ear” at all times. They are looking after people with frequently severe physical and mental health issues. The jobs are incredibly demanding.

One of the arguments for not paying is that these carers are employed by charities and the charities don’t have enough money. Also, these charities will face major problems if the Supreme Court rules that back pay is owed.

This argument falls down when you discover that the Scottish Government made a pledge in 2016 that employees of public-contracted private and third-sector employers would be paid the Scottish Living Wage. This includes carers. The Scottish Government has set aside funds to go to local authorities to provide money for pay. At present that wage is £9.30 per hour. This doesn’t mean all these key workers are on this pay grade, but there’s a desire to get them there.

It proves, if nothing else, that if there is a will to pay people who provide hard and vital services properly, it can be done.

I understand how charities will be fearful if the Supreme Court ruling goes against them. But it gets to the heart of our value system. If central Westminster government genuinely valued social care and essential, unfashionable jobs in that sector, they could fix things quickly. Saying they’re going to do something is very different to doing it.

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We barely blink when a care worker has to settle for £30 for a long shift

And it could have a massive effect on society. Because we don’t value these jobs anywhere close to enough.

Last week, John Bird wrote here about payment for cleaners and making them feel valued. A few months ago, Dutch historian, economist and proponent of a Universal Basic Income Rutger Bregman took to The Big Issue to insist we should pay binmen more than bankers. It’s a nice line though unlikely to happen. Both points got to the heart of our value system. We lionise and fetishise those at the top. We’re not exactly storming the Bastille over the massive salaries and bonuses awarded to those we accept as the leaders of industry and the economic overlords. Yet, we barely blink when a care worker has to settle for £30 for a long shift doing what they do.

This is wrong. There is no other way to gild it.

And it shouldn’t fall on charities with small cash reserves to pick up the pieces. This is on the government and on us all. We, rightly, are concerned at what looks like a power grab by the unelected Dominic Cummings. But we mustn’t allow those machinations, unsettling as they are, to distract. We should be demanding change. We should be asking and asking again what this ‘levelling-up’ government is going to do for the huge percentage of the population who do some of the hardest jobs.

It wouldn’t take much to give them a hand up. And then to keep them elevated. They are the righteous massive.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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