There is a deep sickness within our social care system and nothing less than a wholesale, root and branch revolution of Scotland’s social care will do.

For the past 18 months, I’ve been on picket lines in almost every part of Scotland, with men, women, their children and the occasional picket line dog, supporting striking workers in their struggle.

It's the inspiring GMB members of Minster Care Group that I want to talk about today. Mostly led by empowered, bold trade union women, these workers are engaged in a historic industrial dispute in what’s believed to be the first-ever strike taken by private care home staff in Scotland.

Let's tackle a mythology right off the bat: going on strike is difficult for everyone involved, not least the workers. Thanks to the Tory Government, it’s now legislatively and logistically nightmarish for union members to exercise their right to withdraw their labour. On a personal level, with so much at stake during this cost-of-living crisis, we have mostly women care workers sacrificing what little money they have in order to fight for a better future for themselves and their families.

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Led by GMB Scotland, we have workers, many of whom are on the picket lines for the first time and were the same ones we all clapped on the doorsteps during the pandemic, being offered a pay rise of between 8-13 pence per hour whilst RPI inflation stands at 9%.

The workers rejected it. It was imposed anyway. They’ve also had to put up with unpaid overtime, broken promises, and a move to on trade union de-recognition within their workplace.

This is the sickness I speak about: it’s exploitation. Those selfless workers, whose literal job is to care for others - to give comfort and assurance to residents and their families - are being forced onto the picket line by intransigent employers who value them at no higher than 13 pence.

Not to get too doe-eyed or romantic about it all but I struggle to think of many more noble professions than working in social care. The workers in this sector, frankly speaking, don’t work there to become millionaires. The bosses perhaps do but for the GMB workers of Baillieston, Cardonald and Stobhill care homes, it’s about the residents they care for. As one worker put it: “It’s a great home and I have loved working there but the way I feel right now, I would go tomorrow if I could.

“I love my job but it can’t go on like this. Money is so tight and everything is going up but our wages. “It’s such a shame to see such a great bunch of girls who couldn’t do enough for the residents lose their enthusiasm for the job. We care so much about this home and the residents. We deserve better than this.”

They do. They deserve much more and much better. But for the care workers of Glasgow and those throughout the rest of Scotland, this is an all too familiar script. These conditions are endemic across the industry. The STUC’s report into social care: "Profiting from care: why Scotland can’t afford privatised social care" is, frankly, horrendous reading but should surprise no one. Scotland’s large private social care providers are associated with lower wages, more complaints about care quality, and higher levels of rent extraction than public and third-sector care providers.

In summary, those care home providers that charge eye-watering rates which, invariably, lead to families having to sell the family home to afford it, result in more complaints, bigger profits for shareholders and lower wages for workers.

Where does the medicine come from then? How do we reverse this terminal sickness and kick-start a social care revolution in Scotland? It starts, invariably, with the workers. A three-day strike from private care workers is much more than just withdrawing their labour. It’s a warning shot, from private care providers to politicians, that workers are getting organised and finding their voice.

We cannot do it alone. It’s why it’s welcome that MSPs from across the political spectrum have lined up to offer support to the workers in struggle. Even the First Minister, in his capacity as MSP for Glasgow Pollock, has written to Minster Care Group seeking a resolution. But if letters to private care providers, many of whom make exorbitant profits on the back of their workforce and their residents, is the most strident action our political class can take then the sickness has rotted our political process.

There simply must be bolder action on pay, terms and conditions for Scotland’s social care staff from the Scottish Government. The Programme for Government pledge on £12 was a start but absolutely nowhere near what was needed. Speaking to the Minster workers themselves on the picket line, they welcome it but it was needed yesterday, not in April 2024 when it will be introduced.

Read more: Politicians beware: the people are not prepared to lie down any longer

There must also be tougher investigation and scrutiny of private care providers who extract as much profit as possible on the backs of residents and their families whilst delivering a decreased level of care quality.

That’s why the fight for the proposed National Care Service from the Scottish Government is so crucial. This is our chance to build a system that removes profit from the care system and prioritises people. That puts decent pay, union recognition and clear career pathways for carers front and centre. We can build a system built upon the ideals of our care workforce; principled, compassionate and dignified.

Or we can have more of the same? More workers taking industrial action or leaving the sector altogether due to low pay and an undercutting of their working rights. The Minster Care Group strike is a historic first of its kind, but it need not be repeated. If the Scottish Government listen to the voices of Scotland’s social care staff, improves pay, terms, conditions and career pathways, it may also be the last of its kind and we can turn a sick sector into something far healthier.

Roz Foyer is General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress