My life at work: exploitation at the heart of the "Big Society"

Submitted by Matthew on 4 November, 2010 - 11:11

Hannah MacMillan works as a support worker in the north of England.

Tell us a bit about the work you do.

I’m a support worker for adults with learning disabilities, for a private “not for profit” company in. I provide one-to-one support to enable people to be as independent as possible and enjoy their lives. This includes helping them to access local government services as well as the wider community. It’s such a brilliant job — not even just in a “rewarding” way, but in an actual “I really enjoy my work” kind of way.

Do you and your workmates get the pay and conditions you deserve?

Definitely not! The majority of us work for £6.50ish an hour with a +50p overtime rate and five days’ sick pay a year!

When it snowed earlier this year and the majority of public transport was cancelled, we had to trek to our central office to do paperwork when our clients cancelled, use our annual leave, or lose a day’s pay — it was like that for over two weeks.

We get made to feel guilty constantly. There’s a lot of “the clients will suffer” type shit bandied around which makes you feel horrible if you call in sick or anything.

Our clients pay around £15 to £20 per hour for our time, so they and their families expect, rightly, a lot from us.

It’s difficult to progress to higher pay scales — I’ve been working for the company for three years and my pay has gone up by less that 50p in that time. I would get an increment if I took an NVQ 2 but there is a sizeable waiting list for that. You can be a senior support worker but only if you work full-time. The pay increases to around £15,000 a year. After that there is only management.

How has the economic crisis and the new government affected your work?

The way people with disabilities receive funding from the government is changing dramatically. Our company is forced to compete with others like it, as well as local government, to provide the services. Our company has made half a million pounds of cuts, and this will mean job losses. The company are under solid pressure from social services to reduce their prices. And of course it is the lowest paid of us that are the most likely to suffer.

Now the funding people receive is changing to give individuals more control so instead of people just being assessed as needing X amount of support hours and then dumped in a day centre that on paper best caters to their needs, they will be able to choose the kind of support they want.

The idea of having a personal assistant is increasingly appealing especially as local government services are slashed — people are losing their places in services for being deemed not “needy” enough. Having the type of support we provide adds flexibility and a more personalised approach.

How do conditions differ for workers still employed directly by the local council and those employed by outsourced private companies?

Local government staff have much higher pay than us. A friend of mine who is now 20 and did a modern apprenticeship gets £200 a month more than me.

They have a much better policy for long-term sickness, and up until very recently they had a much higher chance of progression.

They are suffering hugely under the strain of the cuts, being forced to constantly justify the worth of their jobs and services to people who have never even see what an essential job they do. It’s genuinely heart-breaking.

Adult services is a disgustingly low priority for our City Council, who also employ a lot of agency staff. These members of staff get less pay and no contract. They get shipped in and out and provide no consistency for clients or permanent staff, something which is often incredibly important when working with people with learning disabilities. Agency rates, are huge so it’s not about the council saving money, it’s about creating a flexible, disposable workforce alongside the more secure and organised permanent employees.

Voluntary sector companies are ostensibly a big part of Cameron’s “Big Society” rhetoric, but the sector is actually facing massive cuts. What’s the impact on your workplace?

Cuts can be traced to the need to compete with other companies providing the same or similar services. Brown’s and now Cameron’s plans to create a “marketplace” will inevitably drive down the quality of the services provided by all companies. Council staff are constantly told “such and such a company can do it better for less”.

What do people talk about in your workplace? How easy is it to “talk politics on the job”?

Pretty easy to be honest. There is a very clear and evident boundary, especially in the local government day centres, between “us and them” — the management are the people you will see once in a blue moon complaining about the placement of chairs and the spending of petty cash.

Nobody falls for the “we’re all in this together” bullshit when they can see clear as day that a class divide exists even within a single workplace.

It used to be more difficult, especially during the last big industrial action when the two main unions Unison and GMB were advising opposing actions to their members in the same place!

What are your bosses like?

My big boss was a idealistic support worker who built up a company based on the idea that people with learning disabilities should be able to participate fully in society after being hugely disillusioned by his work in the sector. Now he stands outside our offices smoking cigars and was smiling on the day his workforce received letters threatening their jobs. The guy below him was shipped in from the probation service and the first thing he did with our company was decorate the offices in the style of a Victorian town house. If it wasn’t so bloody horrible it would be funny.

Is there a union in your workplace, and does it do a good job?

People are unionised, but there are no recognition agreements. That is stated very clearly in our contracts. It’s hard to even know where to begin because we have such a high staff turnover and people have no trust in unions. GMB and Unison do not do any active recruitment, but there are a few of us who openly recommend joining to our colleagues.

If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?

Pay! Definitely! So many people my age hate their jobs but do them because they earn well. I have the opposite problem. When you can earn significantly more cold calling in some soulless office for Direct Line than you can supporting your fellow human beings, something is seriously screwed up.

Socialism anyone?

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