news analysis of pay offer for social workers

Public sector union Unison says social workers are being
left behind in the pay stakes and has advised its members to reject
a 3 per cent offer from councils. Anabel Unity Sale

It is the three-letter word that gets everyone going: pay. The
National Union for Teachers was so incensed by the offer of a 3.5
per cent rise in London weighting that it called a one-day strike
across the capital earlier this week.

Teachers are not the only public employees upset about their pay
packets. Public sector union Unison, which represents 860,000
council workers including social workers and social care staff,
last week recommended that members reject a 3 per cent pay offer
from councils and, if necessary, strike.

Although a spokesperson for the Employers’ Organisation
insists that local authorities “still haven’t got any more
money, whatever Unison threatens”, the union remains defiant,
describing the employers’ offer as “a kick in the teeth”.

It is easy to see why public sector workers say they are
financially hard done by. After all, a newly qualified chartered
accountant earns £30,000 to £40,000 a year, compared with
the £16,734 average salary of a newly qualified social

Social workers also lose out to their public sector colleagues.
According to last April’s New Earnings Survey from the Office
for National Statistics, full-time social workers earned an average
of £427.10, before tax, per week in 2001. This compared with
£434.90 for nurses and £558.20 for secondary school
teachers over the same period. All workers, in all sectors (private
and public), earned an average of £444.30 per week before

Owen Davies, Unison’s national social services officer,
argues that social care staff are being left behind in the pay
stakes because the government is focusing on teachers, police
officers and nurses.

He says: “All social care staff are grossly undervalued because
historically the jobs associated with social care are not paid
rates that reflect the work being done.”

Hilary Simon, vice-chairperson of the Association of Directors
of Social Services human resources committee, says social care
professionals do a good job and should be rewarded accordingly: “As
we work in an area where more and more staff from other sectors are
also employed, there should be equal pay for equal work,” she

However, throwing money at social care staff is not the only
answer. “You would be a fool as an employer to pay good money for
staff when you don’t have to,” Simon says. “There are
different reasons why people go to work other than pay. It is about
job satisfaction, the team and the location.”

But unless the pay situation in social care is resolved
satisfactorily, services will become “increasingly threadbare and
crisis-focused”, Davies warns. This will be compounded by fewer
younger people joining social care because more money is on offer
elsewhere in the public sector, he says.

The impact is already being felt with the latest research from
the Employers’ Organisation revealing a field social worker
vacancy rate of 16 per cent in England.2

This has led to an over reliance on agency staff – who
ironically are often disillusioned public sector employees who have
discovered they can earn more working for these independent sector

However, Simon denies that this is necessarily an indication
that social workers in general are preparing to jump ship. “People
come into social care and social work for a variety of reasons. I
don’t think they will run off and join the private sector
because of differences in wages.”

So what can be done to improve the situation? Simon recommends
that councils conduct a “thorough and vigorous” job evaluation
scheme to establish the value of social care positions, and the
value of these jobs to the employer.

Davies calls for an alliance of the organisations that believe
in the importance of social care workers. This would include Unison
and professional bodies. “We need to give a united message to
ministers that funding has to be improved for social care staff,”
he argues.

“If the government wants quality standards in social care then
it must realise that it cannot do this on the cheap. It has got to
invest in staff. Otherwise it will never reach its own targets for

1 Office for National Statistics, New Earnings
Survey, the Stationery Office, 2001

2 Employers’ Organisation for Local Government,
Social Services Recruitment and Retention Survey 2000, EO, 2001

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