Home care workers in Birmingham have found that “it feels good to stand up and fight for your rights” ahead of their upcoming strike.
The 243 members of the home enablement team are fighting redundancies and the imposition of a new rota system. They say the changes would destroy the quality of the service they provide.
The workers are a key link in the chain between the NHS and social care. And cuts to other services have left them trying to plug the gaps.
Home carer Kiren said, “Carers now have to perform the role of social worker, counsellor, district nurse, interpreter. If clients haven’t got food in their fridge, we buy it for them. A lot of workers go out of their way. I know I do.”
The Unison union members struck for several hours on 20 January and again on 6 February. Now they are stepping up the fight and preparing to strike for five days—with the first walkout planned for this Saturday.
Birmingham’s Labour council announced plans last April to reduce the workforce by 40 percent.
But home carers say the workforce has fallen by 48 percent in just a few months. They say many workers have taken voluntary redundancy to escape management bullying.
Home carers want to provide a quality service that gives vulnerable people autonomy over their lives. But cuts have already harmed their ability to deliver that.
Home carer Sharon said, “Last week a service user was very upset because a male carer had to undress her. She said she wasn’t comfortable and had a panic attack. But she is worried that if she refuses the call, she will lose the service.”
Now council bosses want to introduce brutal new shifts that would mean working 7-10am, 12-2pm and then 4-10pm. This would mean effectively working a 16-hour day but only getting paid for 11—and could drive more carers out of the service.
Workers either walk or drive to each call, and said the gaps between paid work would transform their working day for the worse.
Unison rep Mandy Buckley said the split shifts would mean “staff sit in bus stops, or walk the long way round to calls”.
“Sometimes they go to the shops and sit in the park,” she said.
Workers used to provide longer-term social care. Cuts mean they now provide care for just six weeks following a hospital discharge.
Yet the service still allows people to stay in their own homes, rather than remaining in hospital or going to a care home. Home carers even help provide palliative care allowing service users to die with dignity at home.
“Home care used to be seen as mainly for older people,” Mandy said. “It involved washing, personal care, cooking, shopping and collecting pensions. That’s what used to happen—but we don’t do that anymore.
“Our service is for people from the age of 19 to 120. We meet the needs of people with a vast range of needs. It could be a stroke, cancer, heart attack, a broken limb, ME or absolutely anything.”
Kiren said bosses have dismissed fears about the impact of cuts by saying that family members can look after people instead. “But how many people have family that are able to do it?” she asked.
Meanwhile the job losses mean the private sector is being used to fill the demand.
Workers fear that Birmingham City Council (BCC) is trying to privatise the service on the sly.
Some 100 care packages are tendered to private company Servicare each month. Mandy said, “This started just before Christmas, and is supposed to be a pilot to help the NHS through the winter period.”
The shift to private firms risks vulnerable people being left with a lower quality service. Home care workers employed directly by BCC have decades of experience and Mandy said they offer a “high standard of service”.
“We’re a qualified workforce, trained in NVQs, and many staff have taken on additional training they’ve done independently,” she said.
Kiren agreed. “If you look at the private sector, I don’t think they’ve got the qualifications we’ve got,” she said.
Many working in the private care sector are not offered the same training opportunities and they are also under intense time pressures. Yet Mandy said the time carers spend with people is key for their wellbeing.
“We sit down with someone for
15 minutes and get to know them, and that’s part of their wellbeing package,” she said. “If we need to take more time in a call, we’re able to do that.”
The enablement team aims to help people develop the confidence and skills they need to live independently in their own homes. Mandy said, “If we’re there for the short term, the long term picture is they can live independently without care packages.
“I feel like we empower people, and they get their confidence back. They develop the skills to do things they couldn’t previously. That is so rewarding.”
Love was a home carer for 20 years before the threat of the new split shift system forced her to take redundancy earlier this year.
She said that bosses “don’t respect the people of Birmingham and that’s why they cut”.
“Every manager comes in and thinks their ideas are different, but they just mess everything up,” she said.
“It’s all about money, it’s about business. They are sweeping everything under the carpet, but when you look under the carpet, you see the mess.”
Managers have told care workers to “fit into this new service” or go part time. But as Kiren said, “They say we’ve got to fit into their service, but we are the service.”
She said the stress of the cuts has contributed to depression and anxiety, forcing her to take time off work. “I’m on medication because of this,” she said. “A lot of the other carers have taken time off sick as well—it’s a nightmare.”
Some 95 percent of the carers are women, and many perform caring roles outside their paid work too.
Kiren explained, “We’ve got elderly families to look after, and we’ve got lives to live. I know the managers think it’s all about them, but it’s not.”
But workers have refused to accept the attacks and are fighting back. Love said, “They think they can get away with the cuts because we are lower paid and women. But enough is enough.”
Although Love has stopped working as a home carer she is actively involved in the fight, and recently spoke at Homerton hospital in London. She said, “Nursing assistants there told me if we win, it will help them. They said it’s given them something to fight for.”
Mandy said, “Some people think we’re striking for money—but we’re not. And they will only realise what’s happened to the service when it’s too late and it’s not there anymore.
“It will come to a point where there’s only the private sector service there—but that’s not a real choice for people.”
BCC wants to make £54 million in cuts in 2018-19, after raising council tax by almost 5 percent. It follows years of austerity that has seen the Tories cut BBC funding by £650 million since 2010.
And BCC has already brutally attacked carers in recent years. In 2010 they lost overtime pay, effectively cutting a full time salary by £5,500 a year.
Mandy said workers feel “devastated” that a Labour council that should be “supporting the services” is attacking them. “It’s as though they’re not interested,” she said.
“All you keep hearing is they’ve got to make cuts somewhere, but there’s cuts happening all across the city.”
Love said she is happy to personally ask the Tories for extra money to fund the service. “If BCC can’t speak for themselves, they should take some of us who will talk to the government,” she said.
“I believe in Labour, but we are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to BCC. Why are they putting the taxes up but not helping the citizens of Birmingham?”
And the attacks have made workers ask why there is cash for some but not others. “The money is probably going on expensive managers,” said Love. “If you cut two out of the top ten it would pay for carers—what is their problem?”
The carers are paid just £9.35 an hour for the vital job they do.
Kiren said, “Look at what sort of jobs the managers have got. They just sit there and do nothing. How much money have they got in their bank?”
The carers have received over £27,000 for their hardship fund. And the experience of striking and organising together has turned their earlier feelings of despair into strength.
As Kiren said, “I came to a point where I wanted to leave but I thought to myself, why leave? We are going to stand together and fight it, and we know we’re going to win, definitely.”
None of the home carers who spoke to Socialist Worker had ever been on strike before. Love said, “Standing up for your rights is so good. We are fighting for ourselves, for the clients and for the future, for the people.
“When we stop fighting, who’s going to fight for them? We are not fighting for ourselves alone—this is injustice.”