Special report on the demise of the low pay unit

The news this week that the Low Pay Unit, which has campaigned
on behalf of the low paid for nearly three decades, is to close
because its funding has been cut was greeted with shock,
writes Sally Gillen.

To many observers the decision is confusing because it reveals a
contradiction at the heart of government, which is that while it
has set up numerous units aimed at reducing poverty and social
exclusion, many of those within the social care sector delivering
that essential work are themselves as likely to be suffering from
those problems because of poor pay.

In addition, there are worries that the end of the Low Pay Unit
has come about because the achievement of a national minimum wage
at £3.60 in 1999 somehow represents the end of its 29-year

Particularly worrying is the suggestion by its director Richard
Towers that the grant-making trusts which financed the unit
withdrew support because of a shift in emphasis away from
campaigning and support groups towards projects.

“If we were delivering soup to those who could not afford to eat
because of poverty we would be successful with grants, but because
we are doing work that looks at what causes poverty we
aren’t,” says Towers.

Jack Dromey, national organiser at the Transport and General
Workers Union, who worked for the unit in the 1970s, describes its
closure as a “tragedy”, adding that it had “challenged trade unions
to act”.

“There remains in Britain the scandal of low pay for millions of
workers,” he says.

Many of those workers are in the social care sector, and Towers
says that care workers “are among the 10 usual suspects we are
consistently concerned about in terms of low pay”.

Millions of others will also feel the loss of the unit, because
although there are a handful of regional low pay units they mainly
provide advice on employment rights, none of them has the same
campaigning clout.

Rob Bullard, director of the West Midlands low pay unit, also
points out that the units are unable to deal with calls outside of
their catchment area because of limited resources, which will mean
the 100-plus people who contact the London unit for advice every
week will be left without any help.

Particularly vulnerable are those social care workers scattered
throughout the independent care home sector who are not members of
a union so do not have any way to exercise any power over their pay
and conditions.

Voluntary sector workers are in a similar position, as only 17
per cent of the sector’s 560,000-strong workforce are in a
union. The sector already suffers many of the same recruitment and
retention problems as the public sector. A salary survey by the
National Council for Voluntary Organisations last year revealed a
10.7 per cent staff turnover. After competition between charities,
the second most commonly-cited reason for staff leaving was poor

Figures published by the local government Employers’
Organisation last September from 60 councils across the country
showed that homecare staff were paid an average hourly rate of
between £5.93 and £6.17, while those working in care
homes for older people were paid an average of between

The organisation is currently undertaking research for the first
time into salaries within the independent care home sector, which
will be published later this year.

Deborah Littman, national officer in bargaining support at
Unison, which has worked with the Low Pay Unit on a joint
submission to the Low Pay Commission, says: “We have a lot of low
paid members in Unison and we have enough trouble getting them

“There are a lot of smaller organisations that that don’t
have the resources to carry out their own research. They need a
group like the Low Pay Unit. That symbiosis will be very badly

While there are organisations that carry out research, lobby or
offer advice, the Low Pay Unit is the only one that does all three,
adds Littman.

A worthy successor is likely to be hard to find. The directors
of the regional units plan to meet with the department of trade and
industry within the next 10 days to secure more funding so they can
build their campaigning work and offer the service to people from
outside of their geographical boundaries.

How successful they will be and whether they will be in a
position to replace the London unit is, however, questionable. As
Bullard points out, the Low Pay Unit was able to make its influence
felt because it was close to parliament, to the policy makers and
people in positions of power. Whether individually or collectively
the regional units can exert the same kind of influence at
arms-length remains to be seen.

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