By Pat Rafferty, Unite Scottish Secretary

THE social care sector is in crisis. It employs over 200,000 people whose job it is to support and care for our most vulnerable citizens. The role comes with many physical and emotional challenges such as long working hours, insecure contracts, violence, low pay and a feeling of being undervalued.

The vast majority of social care workers are committed carers and feel the work they do is meaningful. However, they also do not consider their work is acknowledged, hence increasing rates of low morale with many workers considering leaving the sector due to the pressures of the job. When asked in surveys about their job, words such as dissatisfied, struggling, undervalued, stressed, not-supported, come up time and again. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that around 40 per cent of employers in the sector report vacancies as hard to fill.

A report by the University of Strathclyde Centre for Employment Research specifically highlighted issues of low pay and job insecurity as directly feeding into issues around recruitment and retention. Workers reported stress and exhaustion caused by multiple factors including staff shortages, inadequate time to deal with the people they support and an “intensification” of the roles they are required to do. Other care workers identified struggling to make ends meet and working long hours in order to make work pay as a concern. Around 11 per cent of workers in the care sector are employed on zero hours contracts and 20 per cent don’t have a permanent contract giving workers no guarantee of a regular income.

These multiple stresses combined with emotional pressures can leave workers vulnerable to ill health or requiring additional support. These issues are often the reasons many workers approach their trade union. However, Turning Point Scotland, one of the nation’s main providers of social care has recently raised derecognition with Unite, threatening the rights of its workforce to be organised and represented by a trade union. If actioned, this would deny workers an effective voice despite Turning Point Scotland having received more than £15 million in public funds to support the service last year.

There are reports of other organisations in the sector threatening to remove access to a trade union and the fundamental right to have pay, terms and conditions negotiated. Employers in the sector are wrong if they think the crisis in the sector will disappear by removing trade unions from the workplace. On the contrary, the structural and financial problems will be exacerbated if the workers’ voice remains unheard.

Trade unions are often the first point of contact for workers who feel they have been denied support or unfairly treated. A union is there to offer support and reassurance as well as practical legal advice and guidance. Without these safeguards in place organisations will experience greater pressures from the growing demands of service users, and from overworked and stressed care workers.

Social care has been identified by the Fair Work Convention as a key sector. The Fair Work Framework identifies “effective voice” as a pillar which recognises the importance of the voice of the workforce and their elected representatives, specifically trade unions. Any threat to remove the trade union voice therefore raise concerns about the role of the Fair Work Convention in promoting and delivering fairer work in Scotland. The question the Scottish Government must answer is what measures will it undertake to provide stability in the social care sector, and how will it act to censure organisations which receive public money yet betray the principles of its own charter.