The real Living Wage is the floor and not the ceiling for Social Care by Theresa Shearer, ENABLE CEO

For International Women’s Day we asked Theresa Shearer from ENABLE to write a blog for us on the real Living Wage and Social Care. ENABLE are one of the most impactful organisations in delivering support, employability and skills services, and advocacy on behalf of people with additional support needs and their families in communities across Scotland. 

Social care is at the heart of the Scottish economy. Not only does the adult social care workforce – which is 144,000-strong and 85% women – support thousands of citizens to live independently in the community where they want to be, it contributes over £5bn per year in gross value added. 

While we must not see social care simply as a proxy for the NHS, there can be no doubt that a shift in the balance of spending from acute services to community-based social care provision will, in accordance with the principles of the Christie Commission, have a preventative effect not only in supporting people’s wellbeing, but in alleviating pressures on NHS services. 

Yet the traditionally low-paid social care workforce, of whom the Health Foundation reported that up to 20% experience in-work poverty, has been significantly undervalued in the current round of Government-funded pay settlements. 

At ENABLE, we campaigned tirelessly for years to win the commitment from the Scottish Government to fund social care pay at the real Living Wage for daytime hours, and then again to extend that pay to overnight support – often in the face of considerable resistance from many quarters. 

Our campaigning and influence were recognised with the Outstanding Leadership Award from Living Wage Scotland in 2021, and the call to action in our acceptance remarks was that the real Living Wage must be the floor and not the ceiling for social care pay. 

Our culture at ENABLE is “demonstrate by doing”, and by going ahead and paying our 2,200 frontline social care colleagues beyond the real Living Wage before national funding mechanisms supported it, we gathered and provided evidence of the impact enhanced pay has on employee wellbeing, as well as on recruitment and retention. 

This saw the Scottish Government committing to fund social care at a rate beyond the real Living Wage from December 2021, increasing to a 60p per hour enhancement beyond the real Living Wage from April 2022. 

It felt like a long and hard-fought battle had been finally and decisively won. We were optimistic for continuing recognition of the vital contribution of the frontline social care workforce in future pay settlements. 

At the same time that the Scottish Government was finding over £430m – including £70m repurposed from the social care budget – to fund a well-deserved average pay rise of 6.5% for NHS staff, our expectation of a continued, if not further enhanced, uplift significantly beyond the real living wage for the social care workforce was well evidenced, well-considered, and fair. 

Therefore, the announcement in December’s Budget that social care pay would be funded at the new real Living Wage rate of £10.90 per hour – and not a penny more – from April 2023 felt like a deeply regressive move which at a stroke undoes the positive strides made during and immediately after the Covid pandemic. 

Not only has there been no in-year uplift while our workforce wrestled with spiralling inflation and the cost of living crisis, but the principle that the real living wage is the floor and not the ceiling appears to have been completely abandoned. 

The inadequate 3.8% uplift alongside the NHS’s 6.5% uplift means that rather than benchmarking the social care workforce with Band 3 of the NHS Agenda for Change pay scale – or Band 4 for the workforce delivering the most complex social care and support – as had been previously mooted as a collective bargaining position for the sector, social care pay will now be funded at a rate below the lowest Band 1 Pay Point 1 of the NHS scale. 

The timing of this regressive pay policy could not be worse. Scotland’s social care sector currently faces challenges of historic proportions as we seek to recruit and retain in the face of a labour market where other sectors and employers have the agility and capacity to raise wages swiftly in response to emerging vacancies. 

It is estimated that there are now 17,000 vacancies in social care in Scotland, equivalent to around 11% of all positions in the sector. Behind these figures, of course, there are people; people who are not receiving the social care and support to which they have a right; and people who are committed to their role and feel they need to take on more and more additional shifts because of their dedication to supporting the person they work for. Neither situation is acceptable or sustainable. 

It is recognised across all industries that pay and conditions are critical to satisfying people’s physiological needs and psychological safety, from which base we can build towards self-actualisation. Of course development and career progression opportunities are important, but you cannot tell the social care workforce – as many still do – that it is “not all about pay” when Government-funded pay levels for the sector are on the floor. 

With a new First Minister set to take office at the end of this month, it is simply essential that one of their first actions is to significantly enhance frontline social care pay well beyond the real Living Wage to a minimum of £12 per hour, with a clear commitment and timeframe to progress in short order to £15 per hour. 

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, the fragility of the great strides taken in recent years to enhance social care pay, career progression and development opportunities for 122,000 women across Scotland has been exposed, and the need to constantly campaign and make the case for a workforce that is far too often undervalued could not be clearer. 

A National Care Service will not be the panacea, but nor can criticism of the proposal be used to frustrate the urgency of systemic reforms which must be deep, decisive and demonstrable improvements – starting with enhanced frontline pay. 

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