Special report: The care workers struggling to survive on low pay

Carers are being paid less than the real living wage

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By Natalie Bloomer

“It’s hard, I seem to be working all the time yet I’m still worrying about money every day. I’m in debt and I’m scared every time I get a reminder letter through the door because of another late bill.”

These are the words of Hannah (not her real name) who works as a carer looking after people in their own home in Northamptonshire. She is a single mother of two teenagers and is struggling to get by on her wages. 

Hannah has been a carer for four years, she enjoys her job but does not feel valued by the company she works for and says the amount she is paid does not reflect the hard work she puts in. 

“I just think we are not respected for the job we do,” she says.

“I rush from one client to the next trying to make sure that each one is treated kindly and has all their needs met in the time we have with them. I’m exhausted by the end of my shift but I have very little to show for it. I’m always broke.”

A new investigation by The Bureau Of Investigative Journalism has revealed home care workers across the country are being paid less than the real living wage of £9.50 per hour despite many councils pledging to make sure they are paid at that level. 

The real living wage is calculated by the Resolution Foundation and overseen by the Living Wage Commission. It is higher than the minimum wage of £8.91 per hour (for over 23 year-olds) because it is based on what is needed to cover someone’s everyday needs. Although there is no legal requirement to pay this higher rate, more than 7,000 businesses in the UK voluntarily set their wages at this amount or above. 

Research from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found thousands of care jobs being advertised below the real living wage in 189 of the 205 local authorities which have responsibility for social care. This is despite 43 of those councils signing up to Unison’s ethical care charter which states that home care workers should be paid at least a living wage.

Unison asks local authorities to sign up to the charter which sets out a list of pledges to ensure employment conditions “do not routinely shortchange clients and ensure the recruitment and retention of a more stable workforce through more sustainable pay, conditions and training levels.” 

The Bureau analysed job vacancies on Reed.co.uk between October 2020 and April 2021 and cross referenced these with the names of home care providers that are commissioned by local authorities. 

In Northamptonshire there were 43 vacancies below the real living wage advertised during that period by companies who are commissioned by the local authority to provide care in people’s own homes. (We do not know from these ads whether these specific roles were for council-paid work).

Eighteen of those were in Corby, 13 in Northampton, eight in Wellingborough, one in Kettering and one in Daventry. Two were listed just as Northants.

The North and West unitary authorities in our county do not currently sign up to Unison’s charter.

Unison in Northamptonshire has seen an increase in the number of care workers joining the union recently and local organiser Gary Mitchell says one of their biggest concerns is pay. 

“Lots of these care providers have a high turnover of staff because carers are moving from one company to another to try to earn a few more pence per hour.

“Many of our members are having to work more and more hours just to make ends meet - some even have two or three care jobs. And these companies will often pressure them to do even longer hours.”

Mitchell says the sector needs rapid reform and that local authorities need to ensure that the companies they’re commissioning to provide care services are paying their staff a real living wage. 

A previous report by the Bureau highlighted thousands more deaths in home care during the pandemic. Figures suggested reported deaths for people receiving care at home increased in England by nearly 50 per cent between April last year to March, compared with the previous year. compared to an increase of 22 per cent in the wider population in England, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics.

Mitchell says the last 18 months have been distressing for carers in Northamptonshire. 

“I was working part time before Covid, now I’m full time and that’s due to the growing number of members working in care needing support. The impact has been massive on them and it’s upsetting to know they have been through all of that and are still not being treated well and paid fairly. 

“What I keep hearing from them is that they don’t want praise anymore, they want decent pay.”

Both of Northamptonshire’s unitary councils have been contacted for a comment.