Chris’ story: “To the people in charge now, I’m nothing but a bum wiper”

Chris, a care worker for people with learning disabilities, who has been in the industry for three decades and has seen it move hands from the public to private sectors, spoke to the IER about his experiences.

14 Sep 2018| News

Read below about what working life has been like for Chris and his colleagues and how implementing the IER’s recommendations in Rolling out the Manifesto for Labour Law could make our society fairer.

Chris’ story

I’ve worked supporting people with learning disabilities for over 30 years. It takes a certain kind of personality – a giving sort – to take responsibility for another person’s welfare on such a low wage. You don’t want to leave those you care for stranded just because it’s time to clock off so we go the extra mile, but we don’t get paid when we do. Since care work shifted to the private sector in the mid-90s, things have changed for the worse. Once upon a time, I was treated as a skilled professional, but to the people in charge now, I’m nothing but a bum wiper.

So let me tell you a little bit about what this “bum wiper” does. I am personally liable for the wellbeing of people in my care – I bathe them, clean for them, take them shopping and to their appointments, I sort out their medications (enemas, sometimes), their bills, I provide comfort and support. Because some of the people I work with have behavioural difficulties, I have been spat at, bitten, sworn at and hit. If anything goes wrong, it’s on me – I can even face prosecution if it’s a medication mistake, even if I’ve worked over 100 hours that week and have barely slept; even if I was paid as little as £3 an hour for doing so.

Yes – £3 – well below the National Minimum Wage. That’s the amount I’m paid when I do a ‘sleep-in’ at a service user’s home. But you can’t sleep when you know that if you miss one thing, the service user could get hurt. But apparently lying awake, away from your family doesn’t count as working, so even though we’re still personally liable for whatever happens in the night, we’re not eligible for the National Minimum Wage.

My generation are qualified, experienced and highly skilled. But now we’re leaving the sector in droves. We’re burned out, stressed, struggling to survive on wages that stagnated years ago. The young people they’re hiring to replace us don’t get the training we did. There’s no hands-on instruction anymore, it’s just an online course. But if a service user has a medical emergency, they sometimes only have minutes to administer life-saving medication. Young carers can’t believe another person’s life is in their hands. A lot of them quit. I don’t blame them. They can earn more at McDonalds, where they’re allowed to go home to sleep, and if they make a mistake, no one dies.

But the high turnover of staff is a disaster for the people we care for. Imagine having to trust a constant stream of strangers with your personal care. All our marketing material says we’re “person-centred”, we’re all about the “wellbeing” of our service users. But as soon as an opportunity for cost-cutting comes up, all that goes straight out of the window.

All we’re asking for is to be treated with dignity and respect. For someone to notice all this hard work we put in and reward us for it. ”

Changing Laws; Changing Lives

Lauren, Chris and Lee work in very different industries, but when we spoke to them about their experiences, a common theme emerged – all three felt de-humanised by work. They told us they felt ignored, devalued, treated like “a number”. And they’re not alone. There are 32 million workers in the UK and one in ten of them is in some form of insecure work; one in five earns just £15,000 a year or less, forcing many to rely on state benefits (most claimants are in work), and trapping 4.1 million children from working families in poverty.

Labour is not a commodity – one of the fundamental principles that should underpin new laws governing the employment relationship. By requiring employers to include workers on boards, giving workers a vote at company general meetings, boosting the rights of workers to be represented by their trade union and extending the right for their union to be recognised, Lauren, Chris and Lee would be given a voice at work.

By setting up National Joint Councils in every sector – at which employers’ and workers’ representatives agree minimum wages and conditions for everyone employed in that sector – Lauren, Chris and Lee would have a voice in their industry.

By reinstating a Ministry of Labour, and establishing a National Economic Forum on which stakeholders from across society scrutinise the impact of policy on workers and the economy, Lauren, Chris and Lee would have a voice in Westminster.

The workers we spoke to have also experienced first-hand the dangers of poor enforcement. The introduction of an independent Labour Inspectorate empowered to proactively enter workplaces to identify and resolve breaches, as well as better rights for unions to do the same, will mean it will no longer be up to Lauren and her co-workers to understand and enforce the law.

By making blacklisting a criminal offence, and directors personally liable for their actions, Lee would get his day in court and see the people who destroyed his life and the lives of thousands of others, held to account. Chris and his colleagues would no longer be afraid to rock the boat and would be better able to speak out not just about their rights, but also the safety of the people they represent.

Through widespread collective bargaining, and stronger statutory rights, we can make sure Chris is paid at least the Living Wage for every hour he works, and that his colleagues are properly trained to safely take responsibility for service users’ lives.

By giving health and safety reps the power to stop the job when workers are at immediate risk, or issue provisional improvement notices when they see a problem, we can protect Lee while he dedicates his time to protecting his colleagues.

By introducing sectoral collective agreements and equal rights for all workers from day one, everyone will be paid the same rate and have the same rights when doing the same job, so Lauren’s younger co-workers won’t have to struggle on just £5.90 an hour.

Lauren, Chris and Lee are people, not numbers, and so are their 32 million working colleagues across the UK. All that is needed is the political will and determination to change the legal, industrial and economic policies that govern their lives. Together we can ensure that everybody is treated with dignity and respect.

Read more about Rolling out the Manifesto for Labour Law and buy your copy