Would UK care workers be so badly paid if most of them were men?

Just a thought that used to occur to me during my many years working in front-line care and support work. At the very least, all care workers should be paid the Real Living Wage – currently £9.00 per hour and £10.55 per hour in London.

Due in April 2019, the recently announced increase of the government’s Living Wage (which is not actually based on what employees and their families need to live, former chancellor George Osborne pulled a dishonest fast one there) to £8.21 per hour (which excludes workers under 25, age 21-24 workers will go up to £7.70 per hour) is NOT GOOD ENOUGH!

Care work is important and often very tough work. The people doing it need to be able to afford to live. Seems reasonable?

Why are care workers on the minimum wage?

Wayne Rooney, £1,785 per hour

Wayne Rooney, £1,785 per hour

With the announcement last week that Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney is about to earn £300,000 per week – that’s £1,785 per hour – my mind turned yet again to the low pay of care workers in the UK. Most of the ones I work with earn the minimum wage of £6.31 per hour or slightly more.

Professional footballer = £1,785 per hour.

Care worker = £6.31 per hour.

Am I missing something or is this complete, total and utter madness? Would care workers be so badly paid if most of them were men? Who cares for the carers, where is the public outrage? What kind of society are we living in that apparently accepts this situation?

I have worked with more than one Healthcare Assistant who has loved the job but has had to move on because of the bad pay – in one case to go and earn more on the checkouts in Tesco. By contrast, a small percentage of places pay their staff around £8 or more, as do care agencies who provide temporary staff such as myself. £8 per hour is closer to the so-called “living wage”, a strange concept, the obvious implication being that those on the lower “minimum wage” are not actually living! As you would expect, the staff are usually happier and far more settled when paid more, and the residents/patients receive a better standard of care.

Care worker, £6.31 per hour

Care worker, £6.31 per hour

Care work is considered unskilled, the implication being that anyone could do it. Is this actually the case? In my experience, work in nursing homes, NHS hospitals and the community can be physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually demanding in the extreme. There is often poo, vomit and blood to wipe up. At the risk of stating the obvious, sick and dying grandmothers and grandfathers are not always easy people. Almost superhuman patience is sometimes required.

The chances are that, one day, you will be one of the vulnerable and elderly being cared for by exhausted and underpaid carers.

I have heard that the situation is nothing like as bad in Scandinavia and many other countries. No remotely civilized and decent society would quietly allow such a situation to continue. Gavin Kelly, (chief executive of Resolution Foundation, an independent thinktank aiming to improve living standards for low to middle income families in the United Kingdom) has drawn attention to the fact that, due to not being paid for the time spent travelling between home visits, many carers are being paid even less than the minimum wage.

Professional footballer = £1,785 per hour.

Care worker = £6.31 per hour.

15 years of agency care and support work

My main income since the late nineties has involved just about every form (apart from more specialized and highly qualified roles) of care, nursing and support work that there is. It has been, and continues to be, an “interesting” journey, to put it mildly.

Like many people in care and nursing, I began with home care. For a couple of years I had three regular characters who I would cook and shop for, and in the case of the blind young man, occasionally take him down to the local pub. The retired chef from Bangladesh was always keen to tell me about his experiences with prostitutes. The self-styled “bastard in a wheelchair” of my own age was another great character, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that he later drank himself to death. From there I gradually moved into nursing homes and geriatric wards at a local hospital. Commonly known as “the poo wards”, they were wisely shut down some years later.

ModellingPad

Modelling an NHS incontinence pad, around 2003

Having already had experience of helping the mentally ill with both my mother’s and a friend’s troubles, next came extensive experience at two NHS psychiatric hospitals for a few years. Ah, the joy of death threats from psychotic schizophrenics. Round about the same time, I also started work at an excellent NHS neuro-rehab unit, some of my most enjoyable and genuinely rewarding experiences – partly because a lot of the patients would actually get better. They would come in with a stroke, or in a coma from a failed suicide attempt, or a brain haemorrage brought on by an extreme lifestyle, or a recurrence of multiple sclerosis symptoms. Even though I was still working for an agency, I felt very much part of the team. One actually made a difference in helping many people recover, even if only partly. Good times.WithStaffNurse

For several years I considered qualifying as either a general or psychiatric nurse. For a number of reasons I decided against it. As an unqualified “healthcare assistant” or “nursing auxiliary,” one is hands-on caring for people, not endlessly filling in paperwork and dispensing products from the pharmaceutical industry.

Other work involved experience of autism and challenging behaviour, general wards in several hospitals, also children’s homes. Round about 2007, I gradually moved into supported housing and working at homeless hostels run by the local council. Most residents at these places had a mix of mental health and drug and alcohol (“substance misuse” as they like to call it) problems. As nice as some of them were, dealing with heroin addicts on a regular basis will quickly wipe out any of the more romantic notions that anyone might have had about helping the homeless!

Following big management problems with my last agency (the local branch closed down), over the last year I have re-established myself through two different agencies – in care homes, some different NHS psychiatric units, hospitals and a few other places such as a home for the blind. It’s okay, mostly I do actually feel I’m making a difference. I wish it paid a bit more, and of course it can be physically and mentally exhausting at times. At least as an agency worker I get a bit more than many regular carers – many are on £6.50 or less an hour. Something not quite right there?

My mother’s mental illness

schizophreniaJust recently I have been thinking more than usual about my mother, and the impact she has had on my life. Rumour has it she gave birth to me, that was quite a big impact for a start wasn’t it?! Her initial diagnosis of “paranoid schizophrenia” (there is plenty of debate as to how helpful or accurate these kind of labels actually are…) was in 1969 or so and although she has had quite long periods of mental stability since, she never really recovered.

Roughly ten years ago I made the decision to completely cut her out of my life. As an only child who had done my best, I had simply had enough – there were times when she was pulling me under too. As difficult as it might be for the majority of people to understand, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Those who have had to deal first-hand with the reality of extreme mental illness (e.g. attacking my Dad with a knife in front of me, wandering the streets half-naked in the middle of the night, religious fanaticism, stays in psychiatric hospitals etc.) will get where I’m coming from. She has been in a care home these last few years and I heard recently that she has now begun to develop dementia. I politely declined the request to take on the Power of Attorney, I have no interest in being sucked back into her bonkers world. God bless her, if that doesn’t sound too patronizing. I love her of course.

Kind of ironically, dealing with my Mum turned out to be ideal training for all the psychiatric support work I’ve done. Also, looking at her astrological birth chart for the first time (it explained so much) was the beginning of my serious interest in astrology. My mother was a successful classical violinist, so I guess I can thank her for some of my music too.

mental healthIn terms of compassion and support from society, mental health is not as sexy as cancer, famine relief, or the cat’s home. Many of the mentally ill are on benefits, it looks likely that many will be amongst the first to suffer as a result of the UK government cutbacks. There are organizations such as MIND and the under-funded NHS doing great work, but as a whole, I don’t think society cares much about people with mental health problems. This seems a bit odd as it indirectly or directly touches so many of us, even Stacey and her mother in Eastenders… ahem.