8 Oct 2013

The grim reality of life on zero hours contracts

It’s 7am and Judy kisses her children goodbye. We’re not using her real name. She doesn’t want to be identified but she does want to tell her story.

Judy’s a homecarer in Newcastle. I travelled with her on her round last week to see first hand the pressures that cost cutting have had on Britain’s care industry.

As she drives us to her first client, Judy describes the pressure she’s already feeling – and it’s only just daylight.

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“I’m always waiting for the phone to go and I know that this morning i’ve got a 15 minute gap and I fully expect a call asking us to fit a half hour call into that gap – it’s impossible to do. you end up running late and running behind and you’ve got to cut time off people to fit things in.”

Like all carers, Judy is on a zero-hours contract so she’s always rushing to make sure her clients get the best of her time.

Zero hours are controversial because, for business, they provide the ultimate flexibility allowing them to hire and let go of staff at will.

Yet for workers like Judy they provide zero security. No guaranteed hours, no perks and jobs that can be cancelled at the drop of a hat.

And nowhere is that more the case than in Britain’s care industry. The hundreds of thousands of workers who look after the most vulnerable in our society every day.

Judy loves her job and she doesn’t want to leave it but it places a huge strain on her financially. Between visits she doesn’t get paid for her travel time, there’s only a meagre petrol allowance and she even has to pay for her uniform.

What that means very often is that careworkers like her don’t get the minimum wage per hour. Or conversely, they’re forced to squeeze in several additional calls in the day, so clients invariably get squeezed.

“Zero hours leads to a huge turnover of staff. How can you provide good quality staff when they don’t know how much they will earn? People leave and the lack of continuity and experience means elderly people are at risk,” Judy says.

That’s the damning conclusion of a report today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which says Britain’s entire social care system needs an overhaul.

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The report warns that the way care is currently commissioned is unsustainable, leading to inadequate pay, poor working conditions for care workers and increasing threats to older people’s human rights.

Councils are cutting back drastically thanks to government spending cuts and austerity and that means homecare providers are forced to compete on ever-tighter terms.

The result is homecare workers like Judy are being over-stretched and underpaid.

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