Good work. Work that we enjoy. Being part of team, receiving the training we need to do that job. Being paid well for it. For many, this is starting to feel like something from a bygone age.
In Ken Loach’s new film Sorry We Missed You, he addresses this new type of work by focusing on the vulnerable and precarious world of “gig work” with the main adult characters reliant on zero-hour contracts in the parcel delivery service and care work.
Both characters in the film represent the precarious work the RSA has previously highlighted in its Seven Portraits of Modern Work. The film closely links the time deadlines of parcel delivery with the restrictive 'time and task' model of care work familiar to many who work in social care.
Although the film’s title refers to Ricky’s job as a “franchised” delivery driver, his partner Abbie’s job as a care worker on a zero-hour contract shows a lot of similarity. She is paid on a ‘time and task’ model – based on completing set tasks in set times, such as dressing the client in 5 minutes. She’s not paid for travel time.
The similarities between the two jobs is profound. Have we lost sight of the difference between delivering a package and delivering care?
The film is set in Newcastle. This is no accident. The film links the challenges the characters experience to wider economic insecurity but also specific regional economic challenges, something the RSA has been looking at through it’s One Powerhouse work. More widely one could consider what the impact would be on the family of positive steps to achieve Economic Security, such as Universal Basic Income and Inclusive Growth.
Sorry We Missed You shows that care workers still care, even when the system doesn’t
The punitive model of zero-hour contracts passes on the burden and responsibilities to both Ricky and Abbie.
At one point in the film Abbie receives a call on her night off from a client who has returned home to no care worker visit, the client is unable to go to the toilet or to get to bed with out support. Abbie goes to help her.
The film shows Abbie as a compassionate and values driven woman who cares deeply for her clients despite the challenging conditions she works in. But it also shows that the value placed on Abbie’s role is no more than that of a parcel being delivered on time.
Proponents of zero-hour contracts talk about the freedom they offer enabling people to work “flexibly”, citing students and those who are retired as beneficiaries of the model. There is evidence that a portion of the workforce like the model it provides them with the security of employment (not having to work out tax and national insurance payments) with the flexibility of choosing the hours that suit them.
However, for those who require a guaranteed number of hours (and by default salary) to ensure they can pay bills, cover the rent or mortgage, and provide food for themselves and their family the “flexibility” of zero-hour contracts is not a positive.
Social care vacancies come from staff not being valued
Care work is a sector with consistently high vacancies. Is this because we have become a nation of uncaring people? Unlikely. Instead we can look to the latest data on pay.
Care work has changed over the past few years since my Grandma and Nana had a small group of women coming to see them every day to help them stay independent - and have good long chats about the problems they were having with boyfriends (for a woman with incredibly poor hearing my gran was a great listener).
Care work was seen as a relatively well-paid job, which had value and purpose. In 2012/13 care work was better paid than shop work and being a cleaner. Less than ten years later that is no longer the case. Why?
One of the key reasons has been a squeeze on funding in adult social care. Although commissioners deny it, this funding squeeze is passed on to providers, who by default pass this on to staff.
Many care workers are on the minimum wage. Despite rises in the minimum wage, this often leaves them worse off than retail staff. When issues around not being paid for travel time are factored in, plus the emotional pressures of the work itself…well, working in Tesco instead becomes more appealing.
(Before anyone says there’s nothing wrong working in Tesco, I’m not saying there is. I used to work in Tesco. I worked in retail for years and loved it. But I still wouldn’t say that slinging Oasis CDs was as valuable as the jobs of those women who supported my Gran, Nana, and more recently my Dad.)
Self-managing teams in social care could help Abbie in Sorry We Missed You
The Department of Health and Social Care have recently tried to address the serious issue of staff shortages in social care with an extensive advertising campaign, but this doesn’t address some of the fundamental issues plaguing home care: pay, hours and career progression.
In the recent RSA briefing paper: Radical Home Care, I explained how self-managing teams could offer several solutions and opportunities for home care. I talk about Wellbeing Teams, who are a self-managing home care service.
They not only try to work differently in the field of home care, but also to empower and up-skill staff and pay them appropriately. In this case appropriate pay means paying staff for shifts - ensuring a good salary which doesn’t fluctuate due to zero-hours and also pays travel time. The team have control over their own rotas, work in a specific geographic area, build links to community resources and work in a relationship-focused way with clients.
In Sorry We Missed You, Abbie cares for her clients and her clients value her. That is clear. At one point, Abbie talks about having a “two-hour break”, but her client looks at her rota and sees that she actually started work at 6.30am and won’t finish until 9pm. Her break is merely empty time between her visits that she uses to make up lost time due to unanticipated issues that cannot be dealt with in a 15-minute home visit.
Abbie tells her client that she doesn’t have the time to sit and chat with clients or do the human things that make life worth living. The Wellbeing Teams model of shift work, relationship-based care and self-management would enable these things to be possible in care work.
Technology should support empathy and human contact, not replace it
There is a lot of discussion how technology could change the shape of work, but this should be to the benefit of roles that require human contact and empathy not to replace them with a machine. Wellbeing Teams actively uses technology to support workers and clients. The Future Work Centre is exploring how radical technologies will change the face of work, in Sorry We Missed You, Ricky’s job and arguably life (he doesn’t have time to stop for the toilet) is controlled by the hand-held device that tracks the deliveries he makes.
If we see the value of care work solely as minutes of time as opposed to the value of human contact we are heading down the wrong road.
The values and ethos of Wellbeing Teams should be (and could be) the norm not the exception to the rule. We must move to way of providing support to people that is seen as more valuable than a parcel being delivered on time. For those in home care, their time is far more important than that.