I have been a carer for four years in the UK with a private company contracted to Westminster City Council and other councils in central London. I work a zero hour contract as do all my colleagues. That is to say that there is no guarantee of minimum hours, and from one week to the next I am in a constant state of stress because I don’t know how many hours I will be given by my employer. We travel from one client to another and our transport fees are not even covered. Most of the carers hired by the company complain about not having enough hours and despite new carers being brought in monthly, the situation is the same for them as well. I often wonder why the company continues to hire new people instead of giving their existing workers enough hours to have a decent income and some stability.
Since the Covid-19 crisis, at least 20 per cent of my colleagues have been infected and forced to self-isolate. Despite the rest of us having to compensate for the reduced numbers of carers, we still find ourselves lacking the necessary amount of hours to survive. This is made worse by the often very long gaps in work throughout the day. Many clients live in remote areas without so much as a coffee shop in sight where we could wait. Due to the lockdown period and general precautions taken during the pandemic, when there is somewhere to wait, it’s either closed or only providing a takeaway option. We’re left hanging for hours, hoping for the next call from the company despite national guidelines warning people to stay home.
Since the crisis began, I have been forced to work more but without pay. For example, I would have to shop for essentials for some clients before my shift had even begun because if I went any later, I would spend most of the time they need me to care for them just standing in a long queue at the supermarket. Carers have been put in an impossible situation between providing adequate support to people in need of our labour for survival, and being further exploited.
Even the protection given by the company was poor. Within the first week that the Covid-19 infections were rising and measures were being introduced in order to limit the spread, we received only one mask from the company. On the second week, we received four, and were instructed to only use them in cases where the client was thought to have Covid-19 symptoms.
In mid-April, the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea requested employees from the private company to care for people who had Covid-19 symptoms. In exchange for putting us in this risky work environment, local governments offered three-month fixed contracts, an increase in pay to time and a half (so likely to be £15 per hour), and 10/11 hour split shifts including weekends. We would also be working alone and only with the clients who were symptomatic. Added incentives were travel expenses, pay as overtime, enhanced training and personal protective equipment (PPE) (note: aprons, not gowns), and Covid-19 testing, but only if you have access to a car.
As care workers, we were shocked. The scheme seemed to be a government attempt to keep hospital beds free and Covid-19 death statistics down. All of this was expected to be on the back of precarious ‘community’ care workers who are given no medical training and are often invisible, compared with workers in care homes whose employers were much more proactive in taking on the government over its handling of the crisis.
Despite some carers being prepared to take up the ‘offer’, the company withdrew the contract. This could have something to do with us posting about the proposal – or rather bribe – in horror on social media…
Even though we are not medical professionals, carers have helped and supported people every day- before and during the pandemic. And yet we receive no recognition.
For many of the clients we care for, we are the only people they are likely to see all day. We have to wash them, change their pads, dress them when they can’t, do their shopping, prepare food for them, call doctors and hospitals about their appointments. We have to clean their apartments, wash their dishes, change their bed linen, do their laundry, take out their rubbish, etc…. We have to stay calm when some people insult us, when they are in physical pain and direct their frustrations at us. We have to face spitting in our faces and verbal abuse. We have to deal with disrespectful family members who treat us like we are their employees. We have to give them their medicine, empty their catheter, monitor their state, and if anything happens to them, we are held responsible until proven otherwise. And yet the UK government’s 2020 immigration bill classifies carers as unskilled workers.
It is all very well to applaud the NHS staff and by extension carers but that applause will not pay our rent or the food we need to survive. As precarious carers we are totally overlooked despite the centrality of our work to society, especially throughout the pandemic.
As we experience a second wave of mass Covid-19 infections, things are not improving. In fact, Westminster Council has now introduced a new system of work with the company I work for. Since September 2020, carers are now forced to remain with clients for entire shifts allocated, even when we have finished the jobs that were needed, and the client no longer wants us to stay. If we leave early, even at the client’s request, we have to clock off earlier and lose pay. This is all very unfair and adds to the unbelievable levels of strain put on carers.
As frontline workers, we did not receive any help from the government, yet we kept the economy running during the lockdown. Even the smallest of gestures like a tiny cut from our wage taxes would have been something, although it wouldn’t begin to make up for our ill-treatment, the endangerment to our health and our continued exploitation.
We are demanding proper employment contracts with a guaranteed minimum of hours and a pay rise that covers our basic necessities. We demand to be paid from the first client to the last in order to avoid endless gaps. We demand that our transportation costs be paid.
Looking after the vulnerable should be a public duty and the government should compensate and support those like carers who can provide that service.
Ndella Diouf Paye is a French afro-feminist and antiracist who now lives and works in London
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