Agenda: We need to care more for the care workers

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By Hartwig Pautz

WE need to care more for those who care – this is, in a nutshell, the outcome and recommendation of our research into job quality in Scotland’s care homes amidst the Covid-19 crisis.

Over the summer, I was part of a team of University of the West of Scotland researchers, interviewing care workers across Scotland to find out more about the impact of Covid-19 on their job quality. They told us that the factors that make work “decent” are in short supply: having supportive managers; working in a safe environment; feeling socially recognised; earning decent pay; having decent terms and conditions; and enjoying job security. Only one thing exists in abundance in care work – the sense that what care workers are doing has purpose and meaning.

The issues around job quality are not a product of Covid-19; however, the many care home deaths – 46 per cent of all Covid-19 deaths in Scotland during the first wave occurred in care homes, leaving Scotland with a worse track record than England and many other European countries – have highlighted some of the issues that have affected both the quality of care and the job quality of care workers.

One of the main issues is the systemic under-evaluation and low social esteem of care work generally, and how social care is pitted against the NHS. These two inter-related problems are fundamental to the absence of decent work in the care sector, reflected in the difference between pay levels, lack of access to PPE, and in the absence, for most care workers, of mental health support. The current commissioning process of social care also creates a tiered system in which private and third sector care workers experience even less decent work than those employed by local authorities.

Scotland needs a dedicated approach and specified institutionalised “regime” for job quality improvement. All decent work factors should be seen as interdependent too – increasing hourly pay will not deal with problems around the quality of management or create a safe working environment.

Decent work factors should be addressed together, and this is the task of all concerned: local government and Scottish Government, trade unions, employers and their umbrella organisations, health and social care partnerships, the Care Inspectorate, and the Scottish Social Services Council. Interviews not only with care workers but also with representatives from these and further stakeholders indicate that there has been a reluctance to take on the “decent work agenda” for the entirety of social care. This must be a shared task and one that needs to include the voices of the workforce itself.

Given Scotland’s ageing population, it is vital that work improves for those employed in our social care sector; we need to develop a “culture of care” which does justice to those who provide care and to those who need it. Without it, we’re unlikely to see any significant change.

Social care employs thousands of people in Scotland, who are making a real and lasting difference in their work – and it’s time that they got the recognition, and quality of work, they so thoroughly deserve.

Dr Hartwig Pautz is a senior lecturer, University of the West of Scotland

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