By Kas Witana
“Read the website of any of the big care companies and you could be forgiven for thinking that their mission was one of pure altruism. In fact, they are bringing in profits on the back of their undervalued workforce and government subsidies. Many do not recognise trade unions. The entire sector is carried by its overwhelmingly underpaid, hyper-exploited and exhausted workforce. These workers are overwhelmingly women and many are migrants, who spend their leisure time being told they are a burden on public services…
“[The crises in care] require a reckoning with decades of underfunding, fragmentation and privatisation, and deep change in how our health and social care systems are run… a huge injection of public money, and a model based on democratic public ownership, so that local people, workers and service users can have a say in how it is run.”
– Nadia Whittome MP, sacked from her care job for speaking out over PPE
Activists in trade unions, the Labour Party and across the left must step up discussion and campaigning around social care.
The media has extensively covered the crisis raging and spreading in care homes, with thousands of Covid-19-related deaths, but it is largely silent about how capitalism’s devastation of the sector and its workforce has smoothed the way for the virus.
The government has evaded crucial issues about availability of and access to PPE and testing. It has refused to even address the fact that many, perhaps most care workers, get only Statutory Sick Pay – if that – and are under massive financial pressure to work unsafely. Things are so bad that some care workers have to turned to food banks in their determination to behave responsibly and self-isolate – but some, through no fault of their own, will have felt forced to continue working.
This reality is a result of the driving down of care workers’ terms and conditions over many years, in turn a consequences of the radical privatisation and fragmentation of the sector – both in care homes and home care provision. I was previously a care worker in the private sector; now I work in a similar role in the NHS. It’s not that everything is brilliant in the public sector we have today, but the contrast with private provision, both for my conditions and the service I can provide to those I care for, is stark.
The left must start paying attention. This sector gutted by the profit-motive and now being ravaged by the pandemic employs over a million workers (disproportionately BAME and overwhelmingly women), cares for millions and impacts many millions more.
What can we do?
Union membership and organisation is low in care. However, around 20pc of care workers are members of a union, and there have been some important struggles, like the victorious fight by Birmingham home care workers over job and pay cuts last year. And in this crisis there has been some drive among care workers to organise, with increased union membership and the emergence of initiatives like the Workers’ Coronavirus Action Group and Home Care Worker blog.
Union branches, Labour Parties, Momentum groups and so on should build links with care workers – and service-users – support their struggles and learn form them.
We should support campaigns like ‘Safe and Equal’(backed by John McDonnell and Nadia Whittome among others) and the NW region ‘Care Workers vs Covid-19’ to win all workers the right to self-isolate on full pay, and other demands for rights and safety.
We should organise to put pressure on Labour councils to do with Salford has done and guarantee all care workers the right to self-isolate on full pay, and to act to help ensure adequate PPE and testing.
We must oppose the anti-migrant assault which is horribly affecting so many care workers and further undermining an already understaffed sector. That means fighting to defend and extend free movement and migrants’ rights, and it means stopping the Tories’ hard-right, anti-worker, anti-migrant Brexit plans by extending the transition period. If it means calling into question Brexit itself – good.
Beyond that, as the quote from Nadia Whittome above indicates, we need wider political answers. We can and must fight smaller struggles now – but the way out of the crisis in the sector, a crisis now on fire but which began long before Covid-19, is public ownership, so we can put people above profit.
We should demand comprehensive public ownership of both care homes and organisations providing home care provision, and major public investment, to create a free public care and independent living service with improved standards, pay, conditions and workers’ rights. We should push for the Labour Party and trade unions to campaign, really campaign, for such a vision and demands. Given everything that is happening a determined fight for public ownership could surely gain major support.
Social care provision, social care workers and those who they care for are the sharp end of the class war capital has waged against the working class over decades. The labour movement has failed in its responsibilities here; now is the time to change that. This is a campaign we can win, making a difference to the lives of huge numbers of people and substantial inroads against the power of capital.
Working with care workers, service-users and campaigners to develop demands and campaigning, Momentum should act as a catalyst to help organisations start educating and organising around these issues – and to push the Labour Party into action. Momentum Internationalists is seeking to set an example and make the case.