Zero-hours contracts and unpredictable work patterns - the reality of working in social care

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Henry Simmons on why Scotland's social care system is not delivering fair work for staff and what should be done to change that

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12th March 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Zero-hours, low-hours and sessional contracts are common in social care. Workers have their shifts cancelled when demand falls, or are asked to do extra hours at a moment’s notice when demand increases.

They struggle to manage their lives around frequently changing and/or unpredictable work schedules, and many managers report spending most of their time managing rotas, covering gaps and meeting new requests, rather than supporting and developing their teams.

This is just some of what we discovered in the recent Fair Work Convention inquiry into social care.

Henry Simmons

Henry Simmons

The current method of competitive tendering has created a model of employment that transfers the burden of risk of unpredictable social care demand and cost almost entirely onto the workforce

The overarching finding is that fair work is not being consistently delivered in the social care sector. The funding and commissioning system makes it almost impossible for providers to offer fair work. We also found that the workforce has limited meaningful collective voice, which is vital to delivering fair work.

That is why the first recommendation of the inquiry report is that a new sector-level body be established in Scotland to establish minimum fair work terms and conditions for the social care workforce, and ongoing dialogue and agreement on workforce matters.

The current method of competitive tendering has created a model of employment that transfers the burden of risk of unpredictable social care demand and cost almost entirely onto the workforce. 

We recommend that the unfair commissioning practice of hourly rate based non-committal competitive tenders and framework agreements should end. Social care providers should be commissioned based on their level of skill, expertise, understanding and application of the Fair Work Framework, and on costs based on the right numbers of staff required and a fair income level for each member of staff.

To ensure cost effectiveness whilst delivering fair work, commissioners and providers should jointly address working arrangements, work organisation and working practices that can better align demand and supply.

Unlike other community health and social work, social care work is timetabled and task-focused, and employees are not able to use their judgement to improve or adapt the support they provide. Yet this is a skilled and highly regulated workforce, expected in other ways to act in a professional manner in undertaking what is undeniably a highly responsible role.

Failure to address the gendered dynamics of the care sector and to challenge its significant voice deficit, low pay and one sided-flexibility contributes significantly to women’s poorer quality of work and to Scotland’s gender pay gap. We must tackle these inequalities head-on where we find them.

Given the nature of the social care sector, the challenges facing its workers are not easy to address in a coherent and consistent way.

There is an urgent need for direct interventions to improve the quality of work and employment in social care in Scotland. Enhancing fair work for social care workers is crucial to ensuring a workforce for the future and to delivering high-quality social care services to some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Henry Simmons is co-chair of the Fair Work Convention Social Care Inquiry and chief executive of Alzheimer’s Scotland