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Care workers sue over not being paid minimum wage

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UNISON is taking a local council and care provider to court over failing to pay the minimum wage

A group of care workers in north London are suing a care contractor over claims it failed to pay them the minimum wage.

Trade union UNISON will represent the 17 care workers, and is taking the contractor Sevacare and the local council Haringey to court in the wage dispute. It is the biggest case UNISON has ever undertaken in this sector.

The group of workers (all women employed on zero-hours contracts) claim that they were paid less than the minimum wage as they were not paid for the time they spent travelling between people’s houses. UNISON says this means the women might be working for 14 hours a day yet only being paid for half of them, earning just £3.85 an hour.

Care workers who provide live-in care could be earning as little as £3.27 an hour, the union claims. It says this hourly rate is even printed on their payslips. The minimum wage – now known as the National Living Wage – is currently £7.20 an hour.

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said the “social care crisis” is only going to get worse because of increasing longevity.

“The blame must be laid at the government’s door,” he added. “Ministers must get tougher with enforcing the law so firms aren’t able to cheat their staff. More money must be put into care so that councils are not forced to tender contracts at a price they know decent care cannot be delivered. No wonder 15-minute care visits are now the norm, and there’s widespread payment of illegal wages.”

Prentis added that UNISON will be stepping up its efforts to recruit care workers to “help them stand up to their law-breaking employers and put a stop to these despicable practices”.

Speaking to HR magazine, assistant director of HR and OD at Camden Council Joanne Brown said HR has a “massive role to play” in building business models in social care that are commercially viable and provide good care and jobs.

“How has care become a race to the bottom? These are people looking after our family and friends,” she said. “Why aren’t social care providers valued as much as NHS workers? They should be."

She added that Camden Council has strict rules about what it expects from its procurement partners in terms of HR processes, including areas such as offering flexible working, training and health and safety.

On pay specifically, the Council is working towards making sure its contractors are paid the London Living Wage (£9.40 an hour), recently re-tendering and awarding its cleaning contracts on the basis of being paid the Living Wage. "The homecare contract has been identified as a priority due to the relatively low pay and terms and conditions for staff," Brown added.

In 2015 a report from the Resolution Foundation suggested underpayment of the minimum wage was rife in the social care sector. It found care workers were losing out on an estimated £130 million a year, with around 160,000 being paid less than the minimum wage. This is due to employers failing to pay staff for all their working time, such as time spent travelling between clients and ‘on call’ time.

Resolution Foundation senior research and policy analyst Laura Gardiner said of the findings: “Social care will need to fill up to a million additional jobs in the next decade to meet the needs of our ageing population, so tackling the broader issue of low pay in this sector is a priority. As well as helping to attract and retain staff and boosting the incomes of low-paid workers, better pay would ultimately lead to improvements in care quality.”