By Kate Belgrave (Originally posted here)
By total coincidence, one of the people Your Choice Barnet
careworkers met this week when they were in Mill Hill handing out
leaflets about their strike action
was an agency careworker. He was incensed about his own pay and working
conditions, to say the very least. He stopped to take a leaflet and he
really let fly.
He had trouble with his housing benefit, I think – it sounded like a miscalculation and overpayments problem.
Anyway – Nigel Farage will be the beneficiary of this man’s
experience. “I’m going to vote UKIP,” this careworker said furiously.
Everyone other politician was useless as far as this man was concerned.
He had a point. Nobody would help him. His pay was so low and his costs
were so high that he wasn’t sure he could stay in his home. “I earn £102
a week. It’s about 15 hours a week at £7 an hour. Barnet council say
I’m earning too much for them to pay my £300 rent. They’ve given me £58 a
week and they’ve stopped me £15 week on top of that, because they say
that they’ve been overpaying me since March. So, I’m living on £42 a
week. I went to spoke to my MP – the Conservative Finchley MP. He had a
look at the letters and he said “there’s nothing I can do. That’s the
rules. I’m living on £42 a week. ”
The YCB strikers I was with had some sympathy for this bloke, as well they might. Their situation is dire too.
Two years ago, the support and day services they provide for disabled
people were moved from the council into Your Choice Barnet, part of the
Barnet Group trading company which the council seemed to think should
and would make large profits (out of disabled people and their support
This hope was built on sand, of course. The promised Your Choice profits never came to pass. About
a year after its glorious launch, Your Choice Barnet management began
to bleat about debt and to claim that the only way to make the business
“competitive” was to cut careworkers’ wages and staff numbers.
The company duly set about a very unpopular restructure, with
predictable results. Staff left, or were made redundant, and the rest
are still fighting to hang onto their jobs and already-small wages. Barnet Unison says that about 145 full time equivalent staff
were transferred from adult services to the trading company in 2012.
After the “restructure” last year and cuts to shift allowance pay, only
about 105 FTE staff are in place now – a 30% cut in staffing levels.
Now, careworkers are trying to make Your Choice Barnet management to
overturn a 9.5% wage cut which was imposed on them (on the careworkers,
that is) in April this year. Careworkers report wage cuts between £100
and £250 a month. That’s why they took two days’ strike action this and
why next week, they’re taking more. They want the service to be taken
back inhouse by the council. Meanwhile, Andrew Travers, Barnet council’s
amazingly crass chief executive, has been turning out on twitter to brag about the opportunities the Barnet Group offer for growth
– even as careworkers at the company prepared to strike. Brilliant. I
guess was can expect that Travers will restore the careworkers’ lost
wages and jobs if that growth transpires. Very big If there, of course.
Anyway. Here are two transcripts from interviews I did with Your
Choice Barnet careworkers this week as they took their first two days of
strike action in this round. They describe their worries about low
staff-to-client ratios, the problems presented at places that are
increasingly staffed with low-paid, inexperienced agency workers and how
it feels to lose a couple of hundred quid a month when you’ve got a
mortgage or rent to pay, and you’ve given more than ten years to a job
and have acquired a great deal of experience. This is the world of care
and support work. You’re on low pay and you know that it will just keep
getting lower unless you fight hard.
And just btw – if Your Choice Barnet doesn’t like any of this – tough
shit. That company can let me come in for a couple of weeks to see how
things are working out in these services. Transparency around the issues
raised by these struggling careworkers would be useful. The last time I
saw members of that company’s board, they were running out of a meeting
to avoid Your Choice Barnet service users and their families who were
furious about YCB’s proposed staff and wage cuts. You can see that action here.
Celia* (name changed). Has been working as a Barnet careworker for 13 years. Now a support worker for adults with autism.
“Our service is for adults with autism. We have people who have
one-to-one support and two-to-one support as well. We have a daycentre
with inhouse activities and computer sessions, sensory activities, lots
of activities in the community. I work 36 hours a week.
“The [9.5%] pay cut started off this year with a consultation period.
But when we were moved from Barnet council to the Your Choice Barnet
[company in 2012], we were told that [our wages and conditions] were
going to be safe. A couple of years ago, we were told that we were going
to be safe. Then a year later, they came back and said that they were
running the business at a loss. They said they need to make cuts to make
savings – 400k. That’s a lot of wages.
“It’s affected me financially, because that £100 a month [that I've
lost], that’s like the electric bill for the month, your car insurance.
“The problem is that the senior managers [who make these decisions]
don’t stay in position very long. Like – they make the cuts and then
they move on. They leave you lumbered and there’s nobody to go back to
to say “this is what’s happened.”
“I’ve done about 13 years for Barnet. It was many years [work] to get
to where I am and to get to that salary as well. There’s a few ladies
here who have done 30 years. They moved from elderly services [to this
service] because services for the elderly have diminished. Privatisation
is not good. Look at the state of the country. I find it difficult to
save. I’ve got the mortgage and everything else.
“At the moment, we’re still trying to provide a consistent service
[for adults with autism who use the service], but when you have got
agency people coming in and you’re training them… you can’t really leave
the service users unattended with the agency staff. We have got quite a
few agency staff. That consistency won’t remain the same. Sometimes
we’re really, really overstretched.”
Peter* (name changed), 45.
“I’ve been here just over ten years. A lot of the parents are behind
us [in the strike action]. When you see some of these guys – when they
first come to us and you see some of the progress that they make…we all
know what we’re worth as a staff team. We’re there for people. It’s just
really frustrating knowing you’ve given all these years of service.
“My pay cut was £220 a month. It is a big chunk, because I’ve got
other outgoings, so just to lose £200 a month – it’s a lot of money.
They [Your Choice Barnet] don’t seem to care. They just don’t want to
know. It’s really frustrating.
“Now I get about £1200 a month. Got to pay my rent, my bills and
every year the travel is going up. It’s going up in January again. It’s
going to go up higher than inflation, so that will be about £100 I’ll be
spending on travel. I pay for my kids and now this £250 has just gone.
It’s like you go through a cycle when you’re living to work. If you
save, you end up using that money you’ve saved. I just don’t know how
they can justify it.
“I like this job. In the morning, we’ve got people who come in on
escort – guys who go out on the bus and pick clients up from their
houses and residential houses, and sometimes, you’ve got to contend with
behaviour on the bus. Sometimes, we’ve got two staff on the buses in
case anything happens. The clients get here between nine and ten
o’clock. The staff will be in their various space rooms getting
timetables ready… some people will have pictorial timetables based on
their level of understanding.
“Everyone’s got their own system that works for them, so they know
what they will do throughout the day. They might be going swimming in
the morning and then they come back for lunch. In the afternoon, they
might go for a walk, or do a sports group. Some people have been going
there for longer than I’ve been working there. You have to build up that
trust. It could take weeks, or it could take months. We’ve got one
particular lady – she’s been with us for years and on a Friday, she’s
already anxious and agitated because she knows that we don’t come in on
“I’ve got a nephew who is autistic. I gave me sister respite. I used
to take my nephew out swimming – just bowling cinema and stuff. I used
to do a lot of voluntary work in soup kitchens and things like that.
“The argument that we’ve been having for years is staff ratio. [You
need staff-to-client ratios to be right]. [There's a problem if they're]
trying to say that someone doesn’t need one-to-one support and we’re
saying – hang on, how do you work that out? If anything happens, as
we’ve been told, it’s on our heads.
“In the last couple of months, they have started bringing agency
workers in…. you can’t just bring these people in. When I started
working in this line of work, you couldn’t just go on the shop floor.
You had to shadow people for about a month.
“Some of the clients are older than me. They deserve respect. I’m a support worker. That’s what I tell people.”
Kate Belgrave is a journalist. Since 2010, she has focused on the public service cuts made by
the coalition government, and on privatisation. Have published articles
on these topics at the Guardian, newleftproject, Open Democracy, False Economy, and the New Statesman. Recent joint film made with the Daily Mirror on the fight to save the Independent Living Fund is here.
She also works part time for the False Economy site.