Some of the key themes emerging from our workshop with homecare workers on the Economic Inclusion Roadshow included: austerity, the need for a professionalised and resourced care service, and the importance of valuing care work more – for both care workers and those receiving care. Some of the participants also highlighted the ways in which they felt gender inequality influenced perceptions of and the value of care work.
This workshop was hosted in partnership with UNISON, a trade union that represents homecare workers amongst its membership. We met with homecare workers from across the UK, employed in both the private and public sector; 13 people took part in this workshop, one of whom was actually a care receiver. This Roadshow workshop was of particular interest to me as I have previously worked as a part time carer and wanted to know whether the issues they faced were similar to my own experiences.
What did ‘economy’ mean to them?
We discussed what the term ‘economy’ meant to the participants and what factors made up the economy. They told us that the economy is crucial in both developed and developing countries as it is about creating work opportunities and allowing people to maintain a certain standard of living. That it includes the flow of wages and tax, as well as local spending and services. Our participants whose lives are centred on people and providing care naturally connected the economy with society – one participant said that ‘people are and make the economy, through everything we do’.
The austerity agenda was of key concern to our participants who felt that the spending cuts were affecting both society and the chance for the economy to recover from the crisis. They also commented that economic decisions were driven by a set of values and political choices of the government in power at any given time, and were worried that there was a disconnect between politicians and citizens in their potentially different experiences of the economy. The homecare workers proposed there was a strong connection between an economy that worked for all, and the ability to resource shared social institutions such as our public services.
A day in the life of a homecare worker
We asked the participants to sketch out what an ordinary day at work looked like; following this exercise they opened up and shared their personal stories with us. They highlighted that the wider economic pressures of increasing food, rent and travel costs, coupled with changing social security systems, insecure employment through zero-hour contracts and stagnating real wages, were squeezing the resources both of those they cared for at work and their own friends and family. Some mentioned that they were now working several jobs to make ends meet, and others who lived in the South were even considering relocating to the North where the cost of living was lower. One participant told us that their grown up children who had previously moved out were now contemplating returning home as they could no longer afford to live independently. This is supported by data from the Office for National Statistics, which shows that adults aged between 20 and 34 living with their parents increased by 25% between 1996 and 2014, with a sharper incline after the crisis in 2008. Participants felt that the youth were also particularly affected by the recent socio-economic changes.
More specifically to concerns within the homecare sector, they discussed pay discrepancies across the sector dependant on local authority or care provider they worked for. Some were paid expenses for travel time or for fuelling their vehicles and others were not. The same problem was reflected in care worker responsibility, with levels of responsibility varying across regions despite holding the same title.
Those being cared for, often termed ‘service users’ - the focus of the carers’ everyday work - came up of course, with participants emphasizing the importance in providing those they care for with dignity, independence and choice. When provided with fewer resources in wake of reducing budgets, the care workers said they were only able to do less. Many felt that they were expected to visit increasing numbers of service users with a thinning workforce; impacting the quality of care they are able to provide by reducing the time spent with a patient and affecting the health of both the care receivers and providers. One care worker mentioned visiting a service user earlier than the scheduled time to ensure their care needs were met and that the longer time needed would not have a knock-on-effect on their other appointments later that day. Many councils are trying to boost funding for social care with a 2% increase in council tax (known as the ‘social care precept’), but there were doubts expressed that this would be sufficient to cover the rising demand for care services.
Others touched upon the safety concerns about care work, while travelling to visit a service user as well as entering a new home for the first time and not knowing what to expect or what condition their patient was in. This was something that resonated with me personally - I remember the danger I felt cycling down unfamiliar streets in darkness as a young woman alone, either in the early hours of the morning to start work at 7am or when finishing my shifts for the day sometimes as late as 10pm. Moreover, each service user needed individualised care and if it was my first time entering their home, I had to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Participants thought that their work was undervalued in society, a consequence of their emotional labour not formally being recognised in the market. Many participants felt that the emotional input that their work required was unappreciated and not reflected in their pay checks. They also highlighted the disproportionate impact this had on women, with a high proportion of women making up the total UK homecare workforce. Some participants suggested that women often also found themselves in types of employment that expect staff to deliver a level of emotional labour. A brief explanation of the demand for emotional labour from women within professional settings and personal relationships can be found in Rose Hackman’s Guardian article.
Greater value and respect for care work, and for those being cared for
Our participants wanted to challenge the way society views paid care work and those it serves. They expressed a desire for greater respect for those who receive care, which in turn would result in society valuing the care workers themselves. They felt that changing public perceptions of the elderly is crucial, as the UK has an aging population and the issues discussed are only likely to become increasingly pertinent. Drawing parallels between the bailing out of the banks during the 2008 financial crisis, some participants felt that the care industry needed to be ‘bailed out’ in order to face the social care crisis that the UK currently faces.
Care work to be treated as a profession, not just as a service
To address the challenges posed by the ‘postcode lottery’ in the quality of care, they wished homecare to be treated as a profession not just a service. Suggesting this could be done through regulation of the care industry, in a similar vein to the NHS, with nationalised employment terms and professional training. They hoped this would improve staff wellbeing and capacity to deliver high quality care, simultaneously addressing high levels of turn-over within the industry and social attitudes towards the sector.
Drawing upon my personal experience, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent working as a carer, and had felt honoured to be welcomed into so many different peoples’ homes. It was a brilliant way for me to learn about the history and society of the city I lived in, and being aware I was making a positive difference to the lives of those I worked for was extremely rewarding. Throughout our workshop it was clear the participants also took the same pleasure in their work and viewed it as a way of contributing to society. It was also clear that alternative ways of thinking about, and understanding the economy would be necessary to tackle the growing predicament of the care sector.
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