During the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the more heartening signs has been how people are demanding that care workers get far more recognition and reward.
The labour movement needs to fight for full public ownership and proper funding of the care sector and for care workers to win radically better pay, conditions, and respect.
On the moral level it is one of the most eye-watering injustices of our system that most care workers are paid the £8.74 per hour minimum wage or little more for risking their lives in this pandemic, and often the reward to them and their families is £95.85p per week Statutory Sick Pay.
Those working directly for local authorities get slightly better pay, and are more likely to get full sick pay, but still will be amongst the lowest paid public sector workers. In any case, in-house local authority care services have been in decline. Most care workers work for private sector employees, agencies or charities. Outsourcing is endemic. Private and third sector pay and conditions are generally worse. Care work is one of the lowest paid sectors of the economy.
Many care workers have the added strain of the hurdles put in the way of and the government attacks on, migrant workers. Between a fifth and a quarter of all care workers were born outside the UK.
Doing this job well is one of the most important and difficult jobs in society, demanding skills, endurance, and empathy. The work is quite variable, with different skills needed for home care workers and workers in care homes. Adult social care for younger people with specific disabilities is different again from working with more elderly people.
Yet the societal and cultural status of care work is very low. No doubt this shows how deeply ingrained sexual inequality is in our system. Four out of five care workers are women. So this seen as a "women's job". Socially reproductive labour and emotional labour is historically not valued as much.
The urgent necessity of organising within the care sector isn't just a moral question. It's vital for our class and the future of the union movement.
Last year's statistics showed 1.62 million people working in social care. This is up 300,000 on 10 years ago, and this growth rate is expected to accelerate in the next ten years, with upwards of 2.5 million care workers expected to be employed by 2035.
Before Covid-19 hit the Labour Force Survey said there were there were 27.71 million paid workers overall in the UK. So roughly one worker in every 17 is a care worker.
Workers' Liberty and others have talked about the need for a "New Unionism" of the 21st century. In the period from the late 1880s to the Great War, millions of workers in sectors hitherto unorganised organised themselves into large industrial unions that on both the industrial and political front were far more militant than the older craft unions of skilled workers.
Today, this growing area of social care seems particularly neglected, even relative to the limited efforts made to organise distribution workers or delivery workers. Yet care work, as Covid-19 proves, is essential work, and those who do it who have potential industrial and political leverage.
Care is not a completley unorganised sector, just a weakly organised one. Between them, Unison and the GMB must have over 100,000 care workers as members. It's hard to get specific figures, but union membership is most dense within local-authority-run care homes and home-care services. Yet reps in workplaces are few and far between. This sector seems not to be a particular organising priority for either union.
Anecdotally, from my friends' experiences, there are several factors that should make the care work sector ripe for much stronger union organisation and industrial and political militancy. Turnover of workers in the sector is lower then in many other sectors. Care work isn't a job you fall into and out of. Some training and background checks are required. Once in that sector, people tend to stay and identify with the socially useful nature of the work.
The sector's employers and workplaces aren't huge, but they are big enough to organise. Because of shift working 24/7, even a small residential care home will have several dozen workers. Home-care workers often work on their own, going to see service users, but the same is true of meter engineers or some distribution workers, and they can be organised.
The home care workers whom I know know each other well through meeting at day care centres on other activities or having to liaise over care plans. They are in Unison but by and large only see it as help in terms of individual issues and insurance against disciplinaries and capability hearings.
Politically this sector is only going to be ever more central as our society ages. We need to get serious about organising this vital sector. Comrades in Unison and the GMB should be asking trying to link up with activists already in the sector, looking at how rank and file organising can work around this task.