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The female social care workforce deserve a better deal

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Have you followed the media interest in zero-hour contracts – and noticed how often the care sector is mentioned? Recently, the LGIU's website published a particularly insightful and moving series of blog postings, where over one week a home care worker chronicled each working day, all 15+ hours of it, mainly supporting people with dementia with complex needs. She documents a cruel lack of regard from her employers for her stamina or circumstances, and by implication the needs of the people whom she's supporting.

I've always felt that until the social care workforce – which is 80 per cent female – is adequately supported and paid, then the plight of people with dementia will never really improve. People with dementia depend daily on a workforce that is so lacking in power, so poorly remunerated, so lacking in collective voice. Those without family carers close by depend on it particularly heavily. From my point of view, the social care system is a highly vulnerable one, delivered with tiny budgets by a very unloved, perpetually stressed female workforce.

I know this system well. I've been a social worker supporting people with dementia living in the community. And what I read in the LGIU blog – and various other places besides – sadly rings true. This has been the state of affairs for so long now – ten to fifteen years. For many (me included), it worked better when local authorities were providers of care at home – before the creep of sell-off came to social care (which was well before it came to the NHS). In that era, in home care, reasonably paid staff with permanent positions were deployed with flexibility by coordinators who knew their neighbourhoods, knew their staff group, and most importantly knew the people they were supporting.

There's the story about the state of the female social care workforce, but there's also the story about the shocking lack of interest in their plight from the care sector – and I mean the whole gamut of organisations: government, private and independent organisations, academia and charities. It's an indictment of the care sector that it has been prepared to overlook these issues – and the implications of these issues for people with dementia – for so long.

We're only just starting to get clear data on how poorly paid, managed and supported care workers are. Critical work has been done by the Cavendish Review, the Low Pay Commission, and the Resolution Foundation. Thankfully there has been some interest from the mainstream media in the findings of the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King's University, London on the number of care workers being paid less than the minimum wage (see here).

In spring 2014, not one but three major reports (from the Nuffield Trust, National Audit Office and Age UK) documented the drastic drops in spending in adult social care. As long as the financial settlement between central and local governments is inadequate, the unlikely-to-complain-let-alone-strike female social care workforce will never get a decent deal. And for me, until that happens, people with dementia will not get the support they need either. Their fates are fundamentally linked.

Catherine Ross is the editor of the Journal of Dementia Care. She is writing here in a personal capacity.

Tags: female roles, rights, workforce Written 2014-06-23

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