Update from the Employment Action Group

by Abbie Winton, Eva Herman, Caitlin Schmid and Jill Rubery

We were excited to take part in the 2021 annual scorecard event, ‘Data, Deeds and Determination’ on 6th February and host an employment-focused panel to highlight some of the key issues facing working women in Greater Manchester (GM).

Our session began with the presentation of our key findings, which can be found here.***

Professor Jill Rubery (Work & Equalities Institute) shared her opening thoughts before Caitlin Schmid (Work & Equalities Institute) presented our headline findings, comparing figures to previous years.

Our findings showed that although the gender pay gap had reduced, this was likely to be due to the worsening of conditions for men, as opposed improvement in the conditions of work for women in GM.

Abbie Winton (Work & Equalities Institute) followed, outlining the effect of the pandemic on working mothers. Our findings showed that higher than average instances of children off-school self-isolating in GM had exacerbated pressures on women to take time off work unpaid or reduce their working time commitments. The lack of support from employers or the government for working parents meant that they were likely to suffer financially during periods where their children were unable to go into school, which would disproportionately affect women and single parents who still bear the greater load of childcare.

Finally, Eva Herman (Work & Equalities Institute) discussed the impact of the pandemic on social care, outlining the need to pay the Real Living Wage for these workers (more likely to be women) to provide a safety net that is currently not available. It was noted that this would only be possible if the government increased funding for the sector, as it is currently experiencing a £10 billion deficit across the UK as a whole.

This part of the session ended by highlighting 5 key areas:

  • GMCA should continue to promote the Good Employment Charter
  • Care staff need to be paid the Real Living Wage, with immediate effect
  • Childcare provision must be rebuilt to support working parents
  • Women need access to training to move out of sectors that do not recover from the crisis
  • We support the Women’s Enterprise Policy Group (WEPG) in calling for a new generation of women-focused business support.

This was followed by a panel session that hosted two great speakers from Unison.

Louise Heywood, a senior learning support advisor in Stockport and a Unison steward and organiser at her workplace, shared with us her experiences working within the sector, highlighting that some of the key issues they are facing as part of the ‘crisis in social care’ existed long before the current crisis began.

However, the crisis has exacerbated many of these issues. First of which is the very low level of statutory sick pay (SSP): 8 out of 10 workers do not receive paid sick from their employer, and £96 a week SSP is not enough to live on). This puts workers in a position where they feel they have to work even when sick. Because of this, people did not want to log into the Track-and-Trace app for fear that they would have to take time off work which they could not afford to do.

Louise suggested that many of these issues arise as a result of the privatised model of care, coupled with the low commissioning fees, which prompts employers to adopt a model in which they can make a profit but at the expense of the duty of care of their staff and those they care for. This has led to a high reliance on overtime due to the low-pay and poor quality (often low hours) contracts which are endemic within the sector.

Louise has been leading on the campaign ‘Unison Care vs Covid’, to guarantee sick pay at the rate of normal wages. This has had some great successes: 75% of councils in the North West are now signed up, including 9 out of 10 Greater Manchester councils (the exception being Bury). But more enforcement is needed. In some concerning cases, it has been found that employers have received sick pay from councils only not to pass it on to the worker. Unison can only achieve so much by naming and shaming the employer – more needs to be done. Louise concluded that the only way that this is possible is to urge local councils to bring the provision of social care back in-house.

Jenny Martin, who has been the Unison Regional North-West Manager since 2009, then shared with us some of the broader sectoral concerns, much of which supported the concerns shared by Louise.

Jenny noted that the majority of social care workers work in the private sector, in which there is a large disparity between pay and conditions with that found in the public sector. However, the majority of care is still funded by local councils and tendered out to private providers. The campaign ‘Stand-up for Social Care’ argues that those commissioning social care should ensure that workers are paid a minimum of £10 per hour, and is pushing to encourage local councils to expand their in-house provision of care services.

Best practice has been drawn from certain councils which are successfully implementing these schemes, yet Jenny echoed Louise’s sentiment that we will not see any major changes until social care is brought back under full public control.

We concluded the discussion with further input from the audience about the need for pay increases within the sector and the need to bring social care back in-house. In the meantime, better enforcement is needed to prevent any further damage to the work available within the sector, in the time where it is needed the most.