Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A National Evil

“They do some of the most vital jobs in our country. They go unsupervised into the homes of the most frail, make sure they take the right drugs, help them with washing and the toilet, prepare their meals and often provide the only human warmth and companionship an elderly person will have all day. For all that, many are paid only £6 or £7 an hour, with no guaranteed work, zero-hours contracts even when they do not want them, and zero respect from some employers. They are home care workers. The way many are treated is an utter and shameful disgrace.”[1]

Those were the opening words of my colleague Andrew Smith when he opened a debate last November about the plight of many home care workers. He went on to quote Winston Churchill speaking more than 100 years ago:

“It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions…where you have what we call sweated trades, you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad and the bad by the worst; the worker, whose whole livelihood depends upon the industry, is undersold by the worker who only takes up the trade as a second string…where these conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration.”[2]

We haven’t got a minimum wage for many carers yet, let alone the living wage to which Churchill referred. Without urgent action, it will be progressive degeneration
An investigation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) of home care companies between 2011 and 2013 found that half were guilty of non-compliance with the national minimum wage. 

This year, the National Audit Office reported that up to 220,000 home care workers in England are illegally paid below the minimum wage. Using the dodges of zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment, more than half of home care companies pay workers only for the exact time they spend in clients’ homes, with no pay for travel time and no travel allowance.

In the same debate, my colleague Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) spoke about the fairly horrendous stories he had heard from care workers in Sheffield, particularly about zero-hours contracts and the non-payment of travel time, which is actually illegal.

What we all wanted from the Minister was a commitment that HMRC will proactively go out, uproot and stop these illegal practices. The Minister said that, as the result of an earlier initiative, when 50% of employers investigated had been found to have been breaking the law, a substantial sum of money had been collected from employers who had broken the law and returned to their employees who had been underpaid.  He said that he had requested that work should start again. 

But despite the Minister’s statement, it appears that no action has been taken either by the Department for Business (BIS) or by HMRC to make more investigations into failure to pay the minimum wage in the care sector.

This simply isn’t good enough.

We’ve now written to the Minister requesting an urgent meeting to press the case that there needs to be co-ordinated action by BIS, HMRC, the Department of Health and of Communities and Local Government to ensure that all care providers comply with the law and that care workers are legally paid.

Those employers who are not complying – and they know who they are – need to be brought to book, required to pay up, get heavily fined and be named and shamed. They are not just cheating their employees; they are also cheating other employers who do play fair.

If you are - or you know - a carer who is being cheated out of their minimum wage, then call the Pay and Rights’ Helpline[3] on 0800 917 2368. The service is free and confidential.

However, I know that many individual workers will be scared about calling the Helpline. That’s why I’m pressing the case for HMRC to act directly on information from trade unions, and advice and law centres.

[1] Carers
[2] Official Report, 28 April 1909; Vol. 4, c. 388