During this pandemic, care workers continue to play a vital role in keeping people alive. And in the past few days the government has come under unprecedented pressure to help key workers after deaths in UK care homes soared. For example, as of Monday night, HC-One who currently operate around 350 homes, revealed there had been 311 deaths from confirmed or suspected Covid-19 in their homes, “with outbreaks in two thirds” of them.
HC-One’s executive chair, Sir David Behan, defended his company saying: “We have staff feeling anxious not just about PPE [personal protective equipment], but that they will catch the virus and bring it home to their loved ones.” That is all true, but it is not enough to say it if it is not then acted upon. Last week, the Regional Secretary of GMB Scotland, Gary Smith, pointed out that his members working at a HC-One care home had…
“…been raising concerns about the running of the home and the issues raised have not been acted upon by management. The staff were told they were overreacting and causing panic by taking temperatures. Very worryingly they were advised that at the start of the outbreak face masks were actually locked away by management and staff were told they did not need to use them. Concerns have also been raised about staffing levels and specifically levels of nursing cover.” (Daily Record, April 6)
HC-One denied these allegations. But it should be noted that because of their dominance in the care industry we should really expect that their care homes might be run more safely than the thousands of others for-profit homes run by smaller companies whose employees’ stories of bullying aren’t considered to be big news stories. HC-One should, in fact, be held to higher standards, as their chair, Sir David Behan, is also the chair of Health Education England and was the former CEO of the Care Quality Commission.
Nevertheless, the complaints against HC-One are numerous. On 24th March one Labour Party MP tweeted:
“Getting some really Concerning messages from staff @HC_One no have had terms altered on Sick Pay, threats to dock wages for staff late due to reduced bus service lack of #PPE and more. Spoke to your head office, the promise of a call back never came #coronvirusuk @GMB_union” (Mike Amesbury MP, March 24, 2020)
Low pay and insecure contracts are another important issue that continues to dominate the care sector — an area of work where poverty wages of £8.10 are the norm rather than the exception. Last year, for example, in a report that UNISON submitted as part of their evidence to the government’s Low Pay Commission, the union noted:
“The tendency of social care company accounts to perhaps mask greater levels of profitability was perhaps also reflected in the declaration in May 2019 by HC-One, one of the UK‘s biggest care home operators, that it had paid out more than £48.5m in dividends over the last two years. This was despite accounts showing a loss almost every year since its establishment in 2011…”
Pay, or lack of it, is a big problem for care workers and, especially when contrasted to the megabucks made by the bosses, contributes to clear class distinctions within HS-One. Bullying is another big concern.
Before the pandmic, care worker and UNISON NEC member Polly Smith recalled how staff (but particularly non-union members) in a care home she previously worked in were scared to point out serious work-related problems to their bosses because they believed that “managers would think they were complaining and they’d lose their jobs.”
Last week, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Polly once again spoke out against the appalling conditions facing care workers. She said that she didn’t feel safe and “said workers have to rely on ‘rumours’ to work out who has suspected coronavirus.” She continued:
“They’re not telling us anything. It would be better if the manager came out and said who has a temperature, and who has been coughing. I actually heard from a nurse on duty that a resident had symptoms and then died from it. Who do you believe—the nurse or the manager? I believe the nurse.”
HC-One has paid “no UK corporation tax” since its creation in 2011. Its “highest paid senior director” has been paid £2.5 million over this period (Financial Times, May 10, 2019). One wonders how they can get away with paying their staff so little? But the answer is fairly simple: they pretend they make little-to-no profits. Their financial structures are organised in ways that are next to impossible to submit to democratic scrutiny. Even the Financial Times notes that:
“Tracing the flow of money is difficult as HC-One has a complex corporate structure, with 50 companies, six of which are registered offshore either in the Cayman Islands or Jersey and a further five in the UK as foreign entities. This means investors and executives are likely to have received much greater sums as only one of its subsidiaries files consolidated accounts — the top UK company, FC Skyfall Upper Midco Limited.”
Although this article didn’t provide any details, they highlight that one of HC-One’s many owners was a private equity group based in Dubai called Safanad, a group whose web site boasts: “We operate to the highest ethical standards and put trust, transparency, and respect at the heart of our long-term partnerships with investors, operating partners and the businesses we back.”
The type of ethical standards promoted by Safanad are however not the ones that members of HC-One’s frontline staff would recognise as their own. Thus one member of Safanad’s six person strong board of directors is Lubna Olayan – a businesswomen whose talents are very much in demand among the most exploitative corporations in the world (think McKinsey & Company and Citigroup).
Ethical is hardly the word for Olayan’s work. For the past nine years, she has also been a board member of the world’s largest listed oilfield services group, Schlumberger. In a shocking expose of this huge corporation’s global activities, in 2015 The Guardian described it as a “the oil world’s most secretive operator” which had just received “the largest corporate criminal fine for sanctions violations in US history.” In the world of big money such criminal activites can apparently be easily shrugged off. Business thus carries on as normal, and the article emphasises how Schlumberger has already “proven itself unafraid of contentious customers, with operations in autocratic states widely criticised by human rights groups and western governments.”
HC-One may like to tell the world that they treat their employees well, but the truth is another matter. With respect to the ongoing pandemic GMB explain that HC-One’s policy for their hardworking staff who happen to become pregnant is this:
“No pregnant worker will be forced to attend work if they do not want to. If you are pregnant and wish to exercise social distancing and not attend work, you will be paid Statutory Sick Pay.”
So in a sector where (in 2017) the average cost of residential care is charged out at just over £600 a week (it will be higher now), workers who happen to get pregnant will be forced to live off £94 a week?!
This is clearly a national scandal which extends across the entire care sector, and it is an outrage that continues to grow by the day. Yesterday UNISON released a statement noting:
“More than 3,500 messages from anxious and frightened employees have been sent via UNISON’s PPE alert hotline since it was created. Many are worried for the safety of the people they look after, their own families and for their own protection.”
Some initial positive steps for caring for our carers are now being taken, at long last, and in Scotland social care staff were told they would “receive an immediate 3.3% pay increase backdated from 1 April.” The Scottish government write:
“Social care support workers providing direct adult support will have their pay increased to at least the Real Living Wage rate of £9.30 an hour for all hours worked, including sleep-overs and hours worked by personal assistants.
“The Scottish Government will also provide funding to third sector and independent providers specifically to ensure staff receive sick pay if they are off work ill or because they are self-isolating.”
This positive step forward must now be extended to all care workers.
In fact, demands are already being placed upon the Tory government by some of the country’s biggest charitable care providers, requesting that the government act “to fund a new £11.50 hourly minimum wage for frontline workers in social care for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.” This is good, but why shouldn’t key workers get a permanent pay rise? Huge corporations like HC-One and thousands of others avoid tax to the tune of £100 billion a year in Britain, so this injustice can and must end. Corporations should be taxed and all workers should always be paid a real living wage!
In terms of immediate demands, a pay rise would be good, but we need to go much further to get to the root of the ongoing crisis in social care. This is why I agree with the chair of Health Campaigns Together, Mike Forster, who concluded a recent article for Socialist Alternative (“Covid 19: social care crisis”) by making the following demands:
“Every home and home care provider should have as a priority:
- compulsory daily testing
- the correct ready supply of PPE
- sufficient funding to ensure there is a full complement of staff
“At the moment, this is just not happening so the disaster will unfold before our eyes and yet again this government will have blood on its hands.
“This crisis has exposed a care sector and NHS which is drastically underfunded. We must demand:
- The immediate transfer of home and residential care back to the public sector
- Proper public funding to end the scandal of the vulnerable and sick being ripped of by the private sector
- A decent living wage for all carers
- Free care for all those assessed of being in need at the point of delivery