There are about 2 million people employed in the care sector in the UK. 1.4 million are in the ‘frontline’ , which means they do the physical caring, but also often are one of the few social contacts that the client has, especially in the case of elderly clients. Most of these are women. It’s a demanding job that many of us would be completely unable to sustain. It’s also one where low pay is very widespread. This is criminal – often literally so, as many are paid below the National Minimum Wage.
A recent report from the ever-relevant Resolution Foundation, aptly titled ‘As If we Cared’, tackles the challenge of how to raise wages for this vast army. I won’t summarise the report’s recommendations, which you can read for yourselves. Although the main focus, quite rightly, is on lifting the basic wages paid it also addresses the lack of training and progression in the sector:
” the care sector stands out as offering very limited opportunities to progress to higher pay levels. This reflects an increasingly ‘flat’ workforce hierarchy in which financial pressures and standardisation of services have led to little differentiation of frontline care roles or opportunity for specialisation. ”
There’s a neat graphic (Fig 1 in the report, which I can’t reproduce) that shows how concentrated the care workforce is in the lowpay-lowskill corner of the occupational field.
This might mean that all the women and men doing this care work are without skills and formal qualifications, and secondly that that is the nature of the occupation. In which case it wouldn’t have much to do with the Paula Principle. But most people would acknowledge two things.
First at least to some extent there is a significant undervaluing of the skills that are already being used. Some of them may be natural (I’m avoiding ‘innate’) – the kinds of human quality which should after all be present in any caring role. But others are learnt and applied; they are skills in the usual sense, but are just not recognised. The report quotes the Low Pay Commission:
“In social care in particular there is an issue not so much of productivity as of the value society attaches to providing care, and of a failure to reward the skills that are required. A policy objective of funding higher wages for the lowest-paid care roles might need to be accompanied by other measures, formally recognising the skills involved, and requiring carers to demonstrate possession of them, for such a policy objective to be attained.”
Secondly, there could surely be more of a career structure, just as there is in most other personal services. This is essential if the quality of care is to be improved. Retention of staff is a key factor in this. The sector currently has an annual staff turnover rate of 22%. This is not surprising, given the low pay and the stress of exploitative contracts which offer no continuity, and/or no pay for travel time to the clients. But it is accentuated by the lack of prospects.
In short, social care is a sector where the Paula Principle applies, but in a rather disguised way; and it needs to change both so that the staff’s current skills are recognised, and so that the skills they acquire over time are able to be rewarded. These are rather fundamental questions of value.