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Zero hours contracts in social care
Zero hours contracts are now mentioned increasingly as one of the possible barriers to efficient and effective social care. Let's look at them.
insideCare magazine issue 5, August 2013
What is a zero hours contract?
It's an agreement between an employer and a social care worker (amongst others) that that hours of work may be offered by the employer and accepted by the care worker on a day-to-day or week-by-week basis. The care worker is therefore an emergency stand-in at times of staff shortage. Provided that the care worker and the employer agree to this, it isn't ‘really' against contract law, although contract law says that all contracts must be mutually beneficial. Zero hours contracts are held by many in the catering, events and hospitality industry, and increasingly by health and social care workers.
So why the fuss?
It's about the rate at which such work is becoming more a part of the employment landscape. According to the Office for National Statistics the number of workers on zero hour contracts has almost doubled over the past year, with a record number of 23% of employers using them. 41% of social care workers are on zero hour contracts. According to new government figures, 300,000 social care workers are on zero hours contracts.
But if employer and employee agree, what's the problem?
Zero hour contracts promote flexibility for those with young families. They can perhaps pick the work hours that suit them, around child-care. That's true. However, there's no certainty of income for the low-paid. Income can vary dramatically from one week or month to the next, and there are generally few or no statutory workplace benefits if you work this way. Only working hours may be paid, and in social care, the cost of travelling from one person's home to the next may be paid by the worker. You may not have enough money left over to pay your bills. Also you don't have on-going training, or workplace support, and there's little financial or employment certainty in your life
Surely, though, the client doesn't suffer?
This is the nub of the argument. One of the issues in social care is that those cared for should have a continuity of service from someone who understands their needs, and who is trusted by them. If 41% of domiciliary workers are temporary emergency workers, how can that be? Continuity of care, and trust, are not established by workers who have no long-term contract of employment, have to quickly read the care notes, do a task, and race off to the next appointment.
So is anyone shouting about this?
Yes. A strongly-supported debate on the subject was called in Parliament earlier this year. This was what was said by Andrew Smith, MP, who called that debate:
‘Clients have to explain time and time again to different care workers what needs to be done, how they like things and so on….The whole business of zero-hours contracts is a poor and inappropriate employment model'
There is serious opposition, generally, to zero hours contracts in social care. Between 150,000 and 200,000 social care workers on zero hour contracts earn less than the national minimum wage. This seems to undermine the ideal of a committed, professional, and fully-trained and adequately-paid workforce.