Opinion

Poor pay makes care workers feel like second class citizens – the next government must fix this

Around 43% of adult social care workers in England are earning less than they need to live, rising to 80% in London. The next government needs to give care workers a pay boost to fix the social care crisis, writes Living Wage Foundation's Katherine Chapman

social care crisis sees care workers experiencing low pay

Higher wages would improve staff recruitment and retention in the social care sector, enhancing the availability and quality of care, the Living Wage Foundation argues. Image: Matthias Zomer / Pexels

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the vital importance of care workers, but despite weeks of clapping on our doorsteps, social care remains one of the most precarious and poorly paid sectors in the UK. The next government has an opportunity to change this.

Despite the demanding nature of care work, administering medicine and dealing with patients with complex needs, new analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) for our report out this week, found that over 400,000 adult social care workers in England are paid below the real Living Wage. The real Living Wage is the only wage rate based on what it actually costs to live and is currently £12 in the UK and £13.15 in London. This means that 43% of adult social care workers in England are earning less than they need to live, rising to 80% in London.

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Over the past few years, I have too frequently heard care workers talk about feeling like second class citizens. In recent polling of 2,000 workers earning below the real Living Wage, more than half of respondents said they regularly visit food banks and skipped meals. How can we expect care workers to look after others when we’re not paying them enough to properly feed themselves?

The main barrier to better pay in this sector is the limited public funding for social care services. These services are primarily commissioned by local governments but delivered by private and third-sector employers. Years of budget cuts have exacerbated the issue, trapping care workers in a cycle of low pay and high stress, and causing a recruitment and retention crisis across the social care sector.

However, change is within reach. Devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have already taken steps to ensure that hundreds of thousands of care workers receive the real Living Wage. We would like to see the next government commit to paying at least the real Living Wage to all adult social care workers in England too, for every hour worked, including sleep-in shifts and in-work travel time.

The IPPR estimates that implementing this policy in England would require a relatively modest investment of £415m. After accounting for additional income tax and national insurance from higher wages, the net cost would fall to £330m – less than 2% of the social care budget for the coming year.

The benefits of paying the real Living Wage extend beyond fairness and dignity for the individual worker – it is an investment in the sector and the wider economy. Higher wages would improve staff recruitment and retention in the social care sector (vacancy rates are currently at around 10%) enhancing the availability and quality of care. This, in turn, would alleviate pressures on the NHS by reducing the number of people needing hospital treatment and supporting quicker, safer hospital discharges, particularly among our ageing population.

Skills for Care estimates that for every £1 invested in social care, £1.75 would be generated in the wider economy. Research for the Living Wage Foundation has also shown that if a quarter of low paid workers had their pay increased to the real Living Wage, the UK economy would grow by £1.7bn through increased consumer spending and productivity benefits.

There are already more than 300 care providers who have voluntarily accredited with the Living Wage Foundation. Despite challenges in the sector, the likes of Red Rocks Nursing Home, Penrose Care, and Aspire for Intelligent Care have already committed to paying their staff decent wages. They demonstrate that higher pay benefits not just workers, but businesses too. Mike Vaughan from Red Rocks Care Home told us that their Living Hours and Living Wage accreditations have provided fantastic work environment, reducing staff turnover and absenteeism and leading to better care for residents.

For too long, the importance of care work has been undervalued and underfunded. The next government has an opportunity to create lasting change in the social care sector. It starts with investing in the workforce and ensuring all adult social care workers are paid at least the real Living Wage.

Katherine Chapman is the director of the Living Wage Foundation.

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