Exclusive special report: Union demands more cash and shorter hours for social workers

Unison urged the new local government pay commission to
recommend a substantial boost to social work salaries after damning
new research shows 81 per cent of social workers do not consider
their rate of pay fair, and 75 per cent believe they regularly work
more hours than they are paid for, writes Clare

The problems are widespread across the care sector with over 80
per cent of senior care workers, residential care assistants and
home care workers alongside over three quarters of residential
social workers all in agreement that their pay levels are unjust,
according to the surveys carried out by the public sector union in

“The problems are endemic across the group,” says
Heather Wakefield, Unison’s head of local government.
“They are all underpaid and they are all

The commission was established as part of the two-year pay
settlement agreed by local government unions and employers last
September. It will look at how low pay impacts on staff and service
delivery, compare local government pay to public and private
sectors and study the gender pay gap.

Unison carried out three surveys of social workers, home care
workers and residential care staff for its own submission to the
commission. The first survey of social workers paints a bleak
picture of the profession as three quarters of the 440 surveyed
said their job had become more difficult under New Labour, and only
just over a quarter think they receive adequate training.

In addition, Unison highlights that social workers have been
subjected to continuous change through numerous government
initiatives designed to raise the standards of service delivery.
Unison branches have also reported high levels of overwork, stress
and demoralisation among this group.

High vacancy rates of 40 per cent increase workloads on social
workers and multi-agency teams mean social workers work alongside
similar professionals who earn higher wages.

“I am employed by the council, but seconded to the health
service, sitting next to nurses who rarely have to work outside
office hours but are paid more,” was one comment

While Unison identifies a number of factors which contribute to
the recruitment and retention crisis – including inadequate
resources and organisational instability –  it argues that poor and
declining pay levels must be addressed.

The union calls on the commission to acknowledge the problems
identified and “recommend substantial new investment in
social work staff”.

The home care assistants survey found their perception of pay
has worsened in recent years. In 2001 and 2002 around 57 per cent
of home care workers did not feel their pay matched their level of
responsibility, yet the latest survey in March found this figure
rocketed to 82 per cent. This “possibly reflects the fact
that many home care workers feel increasingly demoralised”,
it says.

The significant pay gains hoped for under single status
agreement, which requires employers to evaluate jobs and re-grade
pay accordingly, have largely not materialised, the submission
adds. And home care workers often feel coerced into accepting
poorer terms and pay levels because of the threat of privatisation
or redundancy if they do not do so.

Their role has changed significantly away from undertaking
domestic tasks, and 67 per cent now predominantly deliver personal
care. Many want their job title changed to reflect this.

“Home care workers are feeling devalued, unfairly treated,
poorly paid and overstretched,” Unison states, urging the
commission to make recommendations on pay and conditions
commensurate with home carers’ skills, knowledge and
responsibility levels.

The final survey of residential care workers again highlights an
increasing frustration regarding pay. Eighty two per cent of
residential care assistants thought they were unfairly paid
compared to just over half last year. 

There is also a widespread view across the residential sector
that employers have no idea about the exacting demands of the job,
felt by half of senior care workers, 60 per cent of residential
social workers and 63 per cent of residential care assistants.

Unsocial hours and experiencing abuse are commonplace.
Residential social workers are typically required to work two or
three weekends in four, and 83 per cent have experienced violence
or abuse in the past 12 months.

In addition, the sector is unstable with significant pressures
around costs often leading to home closures or transfer of
employment to a new employer. Residential social workers also have
concerns about their status and pay, feeling they are seen as less
‘professional’ or experienced than field social

Despite this residential care staff demonstrate high levels of
commitment with 66 per cent saying they enjoy their job and 62 per
cent stating they are still committed to it. But both residential
care assistants and social workers listed higher basic pay,
long-term job security and better unsocial hours allowance as their
three most important issues.

Unison’s submission says the lack of investment in
residential care needs to be urgently addressed. “The local
government pay commission will need to tackle this deep rooted
cause of low pay and injustice as part of its

The commission will now consider the evidence and is due to
report in September.

For case studies of home care workers
click here

and for a residential care assistant case study
click here

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