Shelves are empty, care home staff are overworked, and still our government has no plan

·4-min read
‘At any given time there are more than 110,000 vacancies in the care sector’  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
‘At any given time there are more than 110,000 vacancies in the care sector’ (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

We’ve all seen the headlines. Nando’s running out of chicken. Ikea running out of mattresses. Wetherspoons running out of beer. Supply chains matter. And so too should the people keeping them moving.

The staff shortages now biting across our economy have not come out of thin air. They are the result of wages and conditions being driven down in industries like food production and logistics for years.

Too many HGV drivers, often outsourced or on agency contracts, are forced to sleep in their cabs on laybys – because their bosses won’t give them any payment for truck stops. Is it any wonder that some are refusing to return to the industry?

If we want to build a more resilient labour market we must end this race to the bottom. That means giving trade unions greater access to workplaces to level up pay and employment standards. This is essential, not only for workers in food production and road haulage, but in vital sectors like social care too.

It beggars belief, but there is no plan for supporting the workforce in the government’s latest proposals for social care. Not a single penny of the money raised from the planned national insurance hike is earmarked to help improve care workers’ pay.

Once again care workers – the people responsible for looking after our loved ones – are taken for granted. This should worry us all. According to a 2020 Skills for Care report, more than a quarter (410,000) of all care workers are aged 55 and over and are likely to retire in the next 10 years. And at any given time there are more than 110,000 vacancies in the sector.

Services are increasingly over-stretched, care visits shortened and staff burnout is getting worse by the week. All at a time when our population is getting older. Any serious blueprint for fixing social care would tackle these problems head-on.

But no proper attempt has been made to improve working conditions in a sector blighted by low pay and job insecurity. The facts speak for themselves. Seven in 10 care workers earn less than £10 an hour and more than a quarter are employed on zero-hours contracts. Until we address these issues, the staffing crisis in social care will only get worse.

Making social care a better place for staff and patients is not beyond us. But it does require giving workers more bargaining power. Last year, in our report Fixing Social Care, the TUC called on ministers to set up a new sectoral body – made up of government, unions, employers, commissioners and providers – to negotiate pay and conditions across the entire social care system.

Such a body would help set minimum standards – on pay, training, health and safety – and give workers a much-needed voice in the room. Employers would benefit from this approach too. Collective bargaining is linked to lower staff turnover and higher innovation. And, crucially, it would help prevent good care providers from being undercut on pay and conditions by bad bosses looking to make a fast buck.

Unions are by no means alone in saying this. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and governments across the world from America to New Zealand, have recognised the key role collective bargaining can play in reducing inequality and giving people security at work.

It would be nice if Boris Johnson took a leaf out of Joe Biden’s book. President Biden has already started building a new deal for working America and has shown that the foundation of a fair economy is decent work, paying the union rate for the job.

That’s the way to build back a fairer Britain too. If ministers are serious about levelling up, working people must have the freedom to organise and bargain for a better deal at work.

Committing to sectoral bargaining would transform the lives of millions and be an important step towards rewarding staff in sectors that are under pressure, like social care and food production, for the vital work they do. Worker shortages needn’t be a long-term feature of post-Brexit, post-pandemic Britain. But we need an economy that puts working people’s interests first.

Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC)

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