Before becoming an MP I worked in a care home in my hometown of Nottingham, and going back to work in social care was the obvious thing for me to do when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
But now, just over a month after returning to work, I have been effectively sacked: I was on a zero-hours contract and my employer told me not to return to work. This was not for poor performance or gross misconduct, but for speaking out about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) faced by workers on the front line.
The experience of returning to work filled me with love and admiration for my colleagues, who are paid poverty wages to do the essential, skilled and, now, dangerous task of providing care for people. But I am also angrier than ever: about the privatisation of social care that has left the sector fragmented and mismanaged, with the government for its years of cuts and failures on PPE and testing, and with the attitude of private companies, which run care homes, have towards their staff.
The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the fact that the whole social care system is chronically, tragically, not fit for purpose. Many care workers could have told you this already. Due to decades of privatisation and underfunding, the system is a jigsaw puzzle of different private providers who cannot string a strategy together between them and often compete for the same contracts.
Read the website of any of the big care companies and you could be forgiven for thinking that their mission was one of pure altruism. In fact, they are bringing in profits on the back of their undervalued workforce and government subsidies. Many do not recognise trade unions. The entire sector is carried by its overwhelmingly underpaid, hyper-exploited and exhausted workforce. These workers are overwhelmingly women and many are migrants, who spend their leisure time being told they are a burden on public services.
I did not return to work in social care in order to make a fuss about my former employer, and I barely mentioned them in my media appearances and never once spoke of them disparagingly. But now, having been sacked – or, as is so often the case with precarious work, having had my hours brought down to zero – I feel compelled to speak out against the culture of gagging and management bullying generally in the sector.
People do not become care workers for the pay and glamour, and most could earn more working in a pub or any other precarious employment. More often than not, they are confronted with ruthless private sector management practices and bosses with little or no frontline experience. With tight margins to maintain, the insinuation is often that demanding basic rights and pay for yourself means that you do not care about the people you look after. “I don’t want negative voices draining the spirits of people who are supporting residents,” we were once told. The “keep your head down and keep your mouth shut” attitude of the sector is not only unethical, it is also dangerous in the context of a deadly virus where speaking out about poor practice has the potential to save lives.
When I was being effectively sacked, I was told clearly that this was happening because of my media appearances and speaking out about a lack of PPE. Despite this, my former employer has since stated that it “no longer needed” my help since its in-house cover was enough. The fact remains that if you are on a zero-hours contract, many employment rights and due process simply do not apply to you. If this is how I’m treated, imagine how companies treat other workers who do not have a platform, many of whom are not members of a trade union.
As an MP, I am financially secure and can afford to speak out over a lack of PPE and testing, and risk getting sacked. Across the country, there is a policy of gagging and enforced silence. NHS staff across a number of trusts have been told they face disciplinary action if they speak out about shortage. A cleaner at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich has even been told he faces the sack after complaining about a lack of PPE. These policies are about prioritising the corporate reputations of employers, not keeping people safe.
As the UK becomes officially the worst-affected country in Europe, we must reflect on what has gone wrong and what we can do better. Some things – like locking down early, testing widely and providing adequate PPE – can be done by planning more effectively and clearly moving away from the notion of “herd immunity”. Other solutions require a reckoning with decades of underfunding, fragmentation and privatisation, and deep change in how our health and social care systems are run.
We need a new deal for social care, a huge injection of public money, and a model based on democratic public ownership, so that local people, workers and service users can have a say in how it is run. Workers in care homes should be paid properly and have strong rights, and managements should be accountable to local people and their elected representatives. On the ground, I hope that this crisis has given care workers the confidence and pride to join a union and demand better.
• Nadia Whittome is Labour MP for Nottingham East