For one minute imagine a situation where every adult in Manchester is regularly the victim of a crime. That would mean over 200,000 people being victims of crime every week, year after year. What would you expect to be done about it? Surely, MPs in the House of Commons would be screaming for action. The Prime Minister would be under pressure to stand up and promise to end this rampant criminality. It would be front page news.
This is not a situation you have to imagine; this is what is happening across our country every week. Over 200,000 care workers, the people entrusted to look after our elderly and disabled, are regularly being paid less than the National Minimum Wage (NMW) £6.50 an hour. Over 200,000 people, doing some of the most vital and important work in our society, are the victims of a crime which causes poverty and leads to untold pain and misery for our care users.
In the year since Unison has drawn attention to this scandal, matters have got worse. HMRC, which polices this issue, reported in October 2013 that half of the care providers they investigated were guilty of paying care workers less than the NMW. The National Audit Office looked at the issue and reported that 220,000 care workers are routinely being illegally paid.
As you read this article, no matter what the time of day, the following things will be happening as a consequence of this enormous criminal practice. Elderly and disabled people who receive care in their own homes will have their already too brief visits cut short because care providers make no provision for travel time. Workers are forced to choose between cutting one visit short to get to the next on time, or arriving late for the next visit causing distress and anxiety.
Illegally low pay combines with high staff turnover, 15-minute visits and zero hours contracts to create an over-stretched and unstable workforce struggling to deliver inadequate and often unreliable care. As a result people who need care will be left sitting in their own faeces and urine. Many will be left hungry, many will be left frustrated and many will be left lonely. Too many will have to deal with the indignity and fear of having a procession of strangers intimately care for them.
Care workers will constantly face that horrible decision to either leave people with some needs unmet or accept that they will have to work for free and run later and later for subsequent visits. They will face the guilt of leaving a person who needs more time and care or the guilt of not being able to feed or house their family.
This is happening right now. These are the personal tragedies of care users and care workers abandoned by a society which doesn't seem to care.
And what has been the response of those in power to huge and damaging scandal? It has been shamefully inadequate.
The only positive steps have come from the handful of progressive councils who have adopted UNISON's Ethical Care Charter. Adopting it means homecare workers are now paid the Living Wage of £7.65 an hour (£8.80 in London), have more time to care and receive better training, leading to better care standards.
Meanwhile, our government, along with many politicians and the media, have looked the other way. The message is clear; if you are a care worker you do not matter. If you are an older or disabled person in need of care you do not matter.
It is increasingly apparent that we live in a society where the powerless are ignored and abandoned. Where those in power refuse any notion of accountability and work for the good of the few over the many. What else can explain the existence and tolerance of such a state of affairs?
But it does not have to be this way.
Ultimately, the government must properly fund our care system. We remain one of the richest countries in the world. There is simply no excuse for a social care system that prevents care workers and care users from living with dignity. The swingeing cuts to council budgets must end.
Ministers must publicly pledge to end this criminality. HMRC must be properly resourced and told to make enforcement of the law in social care its top priority.
MPs must take up this issue on behalf of their constituents who will often be unable or too scared to contact them about the problem.
Care providers must abide by the law. Many organisations, especially those owned by private equity companies, continue to make profits at the expense of care users and care workers.
Councils should adopt Unison's Ethical Care Charter in order to end the practice and improve care standards.
The media must give a voice to our exploited care workers and forsaken care users. Journalists who believe in holding the powerful to account must take up this story and help to fight this injustice.
And we, as citizens of this country have a part to play too. If you think care workers and care users deserve better then please speak out about this issue. Contact your MP and ask them to sign Early Day Motion 349 as a start.
Speak up for a society where care workers are treated fairly and our elderly and disabled can live with dignity. The quality of our care system defines us as a society. We all have a part to play in making it a decent and humane one.