We can't fix the social care sector without fixing the way we treat its workers | Angela Rayner

The scourge of poverty wages and insecure work doesn’t just blight the lives of millions of working people, it holds back our economy too. Nowhere is this more clearly the case than in our social care sector.

I know at first hand the terrible impact that our fragmented social care sector has on those working on the frontline, on the millions of people who rely on support and on wider society. Before I was elected to parliament I was a home care worker on a zero-hours contract and the minimum wage, and then I was a shop steward negotiating on behalf of my colleagues for better pay and conditions.

Ministers talk about the “crisis in social care” at the House of Commons dispatch box or in Westminster television studios, but it’s worth reflecting on what this actually means in the real world. Three-quarters of frontline care workers in England – more than 600,000 people – are paid less than the living wage, and 375,000 are employed on zero-hours contracts.

A “crisis” means that the care workers who have put their lives on the line throughout this pandemic can’t feed their families and pay their bills; it means that there aren’t enough workers to look after the people who need care. These pressures create a vicious circle of vacancies and high turnover rates, which in turn leaves staff at breaking point because they are trapped in a system that does not enable them to provide the best care for people who need it.

Looking across the sector as a whole, the atomised system of providers and agencies pitted against one another for contracts leads to a race to the bottom, with bad employers driving down pay and conditions for staff and standards of care across the board. Our economy and society pay the price when working people are employed on exploitative and insecure contracts and paid poverty wages.

The truth is that we can’t talk about fixing social care without fixing the disgrace of poverty pay and insecure work. That is why Labour will give our care worker heroes a pay rise, and we will empower them to get a better deal for themselves when we are in government.

Today, when I open Labour party conference, I will set out plans for Labour’s Fair Pay Agreements. The adult social care sector will be the first to benefit from bringing together worker and employer representatives to collectively agree minimum pay and conditions, before the plan is rolled out to other sectors. Nurses and doctors in our NHS already negotiate their pay and conditions collectively, so why shouldn’t social care workers be able to do the same?

This “floor” will be good for workers and it will be good for employers too – preventing employers who recognise the value of paying their staff properly and treating them with respect being undercut by exploitative firms.

Working people don’t want a handout from a minister in Whitehall. Workers want the power to stand up for themselves and to demand a fair share of the wealth that they create. Working people are proud of the work that they do, but they want dignity, respect and a better deal for their class. Tory ministers don’t understand that because they don’t understand working people – they just expect them to know their place and take what they’re given.

The best way to improve the lives of workers is by giving working people the power to act collectively to advance their interests. In government, Labour will give workers the collective voice and the power to come together to drive up and improve their pay and conditions.

This is one measure of many set out in Labour’s green paper for employment rights – a set of policies that will make our economy actually work for working people, not just for landlords and tax avoiders. The starting principle is that a job should provide fair pay that you can raise a family on, security, dignity and equality at work. We will sign it into law within the first 100 days of coming into office.

Working people want better for themselves, better for their families and better for their communities. The Labour party was founded by workers coming together to demand a new deal and their fair share – that is still our driving mission. Today, as we gather in Brighton, we will show the country that improving the lives of working people will always be our first priority.

  • Angela Rayner is the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, Labour deputy leader, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary of state for the future of work


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