What it takes to care - a case for the living wage

Join forces with Citizens UK, faith leaders, schools, charities and trade unions to appeal for the Prime Minister to act on low pay in the social care sector.

This is a story of vulnerability and vocation, wellbeing entrusted to strangers, and real life met with compassion. It details the formation of decade-long bonds and the application of faith. These words will pay tribute to the contribution of immigrants, both from the EU and Africa. We will speak of the hardships and joys, the physical and emotional cost. We are Rachel and Zipporah and this is the story of the care sector from both sides.

We both feel that the view of care as a low-skilled job is not only incorrect but harmful, as it is this belief that can lead to exploitation such as zero hours contracts and widespread poverty for carers. In truth, caring is a physically demanding, emotionally draining job; it is the bonds formed between carers and clients that make it a true vocation.

Zipporah is a devout Christian and proud Kenyan. She has been a professional carer since 2008. She has worked in a wide range of care settings, from care homes to private live-in care. Her clients have included scientists, magistrates, artists and even the odd pop star! Proof that everyone regardless of their social status will experience the social care system. Zipporah has been my carer since January.

I am Rachel, a 32-year-old poet from Leeds who has cerebral palsy. Last December I entered a poetry competition, which sought work that reflected life in Leeds to be collected in an anthology. My poem – Treasure – paid tribute to two of my carers who are originally from Sicily. It detailed the impact they had on my life and conveyed their anxieties over Brexit.

Treasure made it into the book and I came under the mentorship of the Leeds Church Institute, who ran the poetry book project. When the pandemic hit, gratitude and fair treatment for the care sector became prominent issues and I got involved with Citizens UK’s Living Wage campaign.

In the campaign which launched today, care workers joined forces with Citizens UK and faith leaders, schools, charities and trade union branches to launch a #WorthTheMoney video appeal to the Prime Minister to act on low pay in the social care sector.

The campaign came as new analysis for the Living Wage Foundation found huge levels of low pay across the social care sector in England right before the pandemic hit – with almost every social care job in some areas being paid under the real Living Wage during 2019/20. Across England, 604,168 of 832,393 Care Worker roles (73%) were paid less than the independently calculated rate, set by the Living Wage Foundation.

It’s not right that people who do these vital roles live in poverty, and we have heard this week about carers who have contracted coronavirus having to rely on food parcels just to get through the time when they cannot work. This is why this campaign is coming at the right moment: we must value these workers and make sure that we can also keep them safe, because they are a crucial part of families like mine.

My mum was my sole carer for most of my childhood, as she wanted me to have as close to a regular family life as possible. When I was in my mid-teens my family was told about the sitting service, a scheme providing much-needed in-home respite for people in Leeds. It was through them I met Tina. In the ensuing decade I’ve seen her qualify as a mental health nurse, marry and become a mum. Even though the professional relationship has ended she is one of my closest friends.

Zipporah confesses that care companies, particularly their rotas, do not tend to take these bonds into account. She has often been abruptly pulled off one client’s care, to be placed with a person who is more challenging – an experience that is emotionally jarring for everyone involved. Zipporah says she feels unsupported during these periods of transition.

We both acknowledge the care sector’s open secret; carers don’t just support their client but the entire family circle of the person they look after. Vikki was my personal assistant from ages 19 to 28 and witnessed first-hand the effect high school bullying had on my brother. He regularly retreated behind computer screens and locked doors. Vikki would go out of her way to talk to him and persevered with it when she got no answer, and slowly my brother opened up and displayed a humour both he and Vikki share. My mum often says if it wasn't for Vikki, my brother wouldn't be here.

Thank you for reading our stories. If you have been moved by them, we urge you to check out Citizens UK’s website and back their campaign. That way you can ensure a just ending.