‘Independent living is a right for all’
Unite rep and support worker, Ali Treacher, believes our social care is not fit for purpose and systemic change must happen. She writes
I have worked in ‘social care’, which it is a relatively new term, all my adult life. I have worked in care homes, support accommodations, wellbeing centres and in the community offering support to people experiencing mental distress.
I did not randomly stumble into this line of work. From an early age, I was aware that there are deep-rooted problems in both our health and support services. Growing up, a close member of my family was committed to asylums on a regular basis – this left a profound effect on me, driving down dark country roads, being faced with imposing Victorian buildings and seeing the ‘care’ that my loved one, and experiencing the ‘support’ my family was offered. Nothing apart from side effects from debilitating drugs, anxiety after fleeting visits and an authoritarian, impenetrable system, which overlooked any vague notion of choice or control.
I naively, but genuinely, believed that I could just do my best to work alongside people; offer the support, care and solidarity, that I could make a difference. However, our system is not fit for purpose.
Constantly working within this contradiction is not easy, it grinds you down, and reforming our way out of it, even harder. This is why the current debate around a national independent living service and a national care service and how the rights of disabled people intersects with service provision, our communities more widely, and rights and needs of workers are essential discussions to be having.
I work with some courageous people, trying our best in a broken system, a system that is underfunded, exploited by finance capital, outsourced and privatised – a system that leaves many in our communities alone, without their basic needs being met. We all agree, social care is broken, and a radical rethinking and reshaping is necessary.
I would be doing a disservice to my colleagues if I did not mention just how hard this pandemic has been for all of us. At the start of the pandemic many of us were forced to work without adequate PPE, some made their own out of poly-pockets and elastic from their leggings, others were issued substandard PPE, putting both ourselves and those we support at risk.
The majority of care workers are working class women – doing a double shift, returning from work after long hours, to our families to care for our elderly parents, kids and neighbours.
We have had to work within opaque government guidelines, navigating the best way through, trying to find new ways of working, which will minimise risk for those we support, but baring a deep sense of responsibility to both shield those we support from the virus whilst ensuring their social needs are met.
“Workers have experienced severe anxiety and loss, doing this in understaffed services, working long hours, on precarious contracts and poverty pay. Even though we have recognition in my workplace, most of my colleagues remain on minimum wage”
Another issue, which care and support workers have had to face, is sick pay. In my organisation because we are unionised we took concerns around sick pay to our employer and managed to extend the rights to full sick pay to those in probation and bank workers. We were the lucky ones. Many colleagues across the sector where left with either no provision, when having to self-isolate, or having rely on SSP or the battle with their employer to access the bureaucratic Infection Control Fund. This left many care workers, on the frontline, worrying about how they were going to pay their bills. This continued when many were subjected to a post code lottery as to whether their local authority would pay the £500 self- isolation scheme.
During the pandemic I have been part of a national network of care and support workers, we came together during the pandemic to offer each other support, advice and information around how to organise in the workplace.
Workers have experienced severe anxiety and loss, doing this in understaffed services, working long hours, on precarious contracts and poverty pay. Even though we have recognition in my workplace, most of my colleagues remain on minimum wage. Those who have worked in the sector for more than fivr years on average receive just 15p more than new entrants, there is little if any training provision, and if we are going to reimagine a new way of doing things I think investing in development and meaningful supervision is a necessary ask.
Another issue, which arose in the network, was the rights of personal assistants. Many remain un-unionised, working for individual disabled employers. We need to avoid the strawman argument that says workers and disabled people’s rights must be in conflict with each other. I believe our relationship in intrinsically interdependent and that there are creative ways to structure services and employment contracts which benefits us all. I fully support the right to independent living and the liberation of disabled people and those that require support for a shorter period.
Disabled people having control of their support is imperative especially when service provision is so bleak – I have listened to many disabled comrades speak about services which were offered no choice or control and how dare they want to go to university or work!
However, there are risks to workers in this approach to support provision and this becomes evident when you speak to personal assistants and concerned unionised care workers.
Let me be clear, by just replacing our ‘boss’ does nothing to improve or terms and conditions. Nor does it do little to ensure workers have safe working environments, are offered sustained development, or guaranteed clear policies and procedures which are there to protect us.
By just replacing our boss, with little thought into the collectivisation of the workforce, in fact pushes personal assistants, care workers, support workers into a trap of sham or bogus self-employment bolstering the gig economy, precarious work and low pay.
We know that direct payments are not enough. We know that these payments often don’t cover disabled people’s basic needs, and we know there is no provision in these payments for workers supervision, sick pay or training.
There is growing narrative that reaffirms the government drivel, that personal assistants, care workers and support workers are unskilled, and anyone can do our jobs. Priti Patel certainly believes this – however there is a degree of emotional labour, which remains, invisible and unvalued.
Good support work is like a dance. Sensing how the other person will move, knowing no person will move the same. You need leadership skills to help people take risks, to trust you, to follow you into a busy shop knowing that there will be increased anxiety but you’ll be there alongside them. Support work is different to many relationships in the health and social care, the longevity of the relationship is far longer to those relationships in nursing or counselling for example.
Support workers have to be very aware of being fair, recognising when we are wrong or have been un-intentionally unhelpful and forging a way forward ensuring the boundaries of both parties have been respected. This is skilled work, and we must avoid the Tory trap of reducing our relationships to a list of tasks.
“There is growing narrative that reaffirms the government drivel, that personal assistants, care workers and support workers are unskilled, and anyone can do our jobs”
Failure on an epic scale
The government’s failure is on an epic scale. Care and support no longer reflects users’ needs or wishes. Social care has been marketised and privatised. Many small providers have folded and more and more care homes are increasingly managed by corporates and hedge funds with the aim of generating massive offshore profits.
We need to talk about how we avoid the next winter social care crisis.
There is no place for profit in social care and there is an urgent need to seek new proposals for the future which address the insourcing challenge as a first step towards a national social care system. There is an urgent need for a national debate to take place over the future shape and funding of the social care sector.
We need a social care system with public provision at its core with a new employment deal for social care workers to massively boost the pay and employment conditions and safeguard the health of the UK’s 1.6m social care workers.
I want to end by saying that ‘care’ is not something done to you. Well it shouldn’t be, but it is intrinsically linked with how wealth is distributed, where we live, access to green space and public transport, the ability to access and the strength of our communities.
Co-production is both a philosophy and a mechanism to challenge power and safeguard. Real co-production is a term often misunderstood. Co-production is a radical, transformation of ‘services’. Not a tweak to funding streams.
Co-production where people who require services are seen as equals and experts in what is required to build a better organisations, communities and societies. It is uncomfortable shift for many ‘professionals’ as it means sharing power with workers and those who use services – but this is what is required.
We need to come together in the spirit of true co-production in our unions, organisations and the wider labour movement. We must work together and refuse to let social relations created by capitalism divide us. Independent living is a right for all and we need systemic change.
“We need a social care system with public provision at its core with a new employment deal for social care workers to massively boost the pay and employment conditions and safeguard the health of the UK’s 1.6m social care workers”
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senior rep, Unite Manchester Social Action branch