In an historic moment for the child fostering sector - and urged on by the Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP - foster care workers have voted to unionise and launch their own branch of the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain Union (IWGB). The decision was taken at a packed meeting of foster care workers at Parliament on Monday 19th September.
The event, which was organised by the small, dynamic IWGB, was attended by the Shadow Chancellor and by the employment law big-hitter, John Hendy QC; both men offered their support to the foster carers.
Foster care workers receive scant public attention, but do an invaluable job by providing supportive, caring homes for over 60,000 children in the UK. The majority of them are given work through their local authorities, but are not classed as employees or workers because they do not have a contract. This means that they are denied a host of benefits that the rest of us take for granted: sick pay, holiday pay and the national minimum wage. They cannot negotiate their pay and conditions.
The frustrated foster care workers who attended Monday's meeting raised these issues, and others, including: inadequate ongoing training, a lack of respect for their experience and bullying. One key point raised was lack of due process: many said that they were frozen out of the decision-making process when children were removed from their care.
John McDonnell, who said that "foster carer workers carry a burden for the rest of our community so they should be properly recognised," offered advice to the foster carers. Speaking about his own experience in the sector forty years ago, he said:
"I know how tough the job can be physically, and how heart wrenching. Most of us are pretty shocked by what we've heard about your legal status, about the lack of recognition, the insecurity. The way we've tackled that in other work places - and I've been working with the IWGB on a number of these campaigns - is to join the union. That's the first step. The lesson we've learned over the last couple of centuries is, individually we're weak, together we're strong. That way you can make better representations, you're allowed a voice, you can negotiate better conditions. The second step is to make sure MPs are briefed by the union about what's going on in the sector - you can't let MPs make decisions in ignorance."
McDonnell also said that he could assist on creating a cross parliamentary group on foster care workers.
When the vote was taken to unionise, the foster care workers voted virtually unanimously in favour.
After the vote, Marilyn, a foster care worker from London, told me:
"It's long overdue. For a long time we've needed a group or somebody that can actually support us because we have no rights. And when any of us have tried to stick up for our rights we've been victimised or bullied by individual managers or social workers from the local authorities. I think there's a lack of respect there. Although I'm not afraid to challenge them, many of my colleagues are afraid to do so because if you complain you might not be given a child, and so you won't earn any money. We should be able to speak up without any fear and be able to challenge decisions about the children that we look after, decisions about our employment rights. That is the biggest issue. It infuriates me that we can't be seen to be talking about our pay and conditions because, if we do, then we're seen to be chasing money."
Dr Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the IWGB was very pleased by the result. He told me about the union's plans:
"The overwhelming and near unanimous vote to unionise shows that the foster care workers are in the difficult situation; they are so fed up with their situation that they want to form a union. We're now going to look at options including a test case to take through the courts to try to overturn a court of appeal decision that said that foster care workers don't even have a contract, let alone a contract of employment with the local authority or the fostering agency. We're also going to work with John McDonnell MP on putting together a cross parliamentary group to look at the issue and potentially come up with some legislation to improve working rights for foster care workers. And we have a group of people who are going to act as delegates for the foster care workers that we're going to bring together in a meeting as we start building the infrastructure of the union branch."
For more information, contact the IWGB.