Who’s going to take care of our carers?

Precarious work in the homecare sector

Sinead Pembroke14/02/2017

As anyone who has a family-member in need of homecare knows, private homecare is very expensive. But like childcare, what do we really know about the working conditions of carers in the private sector? And are the high fees going towards providing decent working conditions for our carers?

The answer is no. Most homecare workers are qualified with a minimum of FETAC level 5, which they would have had to fund themselves. However, the rate of pay averages in the region of 10.50 per hour. The “if and when” contract is the norm in the private homecare sector, where there are no guaranteed hours. Not only do homecare workers in the private sector lack guaranteed hours, but they also don’t know the hours they are working, week to week.


Private sector carers well qualified, on low-pay and no guaranteed hours

The “if and when” contracts are used to control carers because, if they refuse to work extra hours or work at the weekend for example, the employer can punish them by not allocating any hours the following week. When it comes to getting time off from work, management use a lot of guilt tactics because they know that carers build a bond with their clients.

While they are entitled to holidays, a lot of obstacles are put in place as to when they can take them; at the end of the day, it has to suit the employer. This practice occurs even when they’ve applied in advance and it has been sanctioned. They receive statutory maternity leave, but it is unpaid and there is no pension scheme.

There is also a large amount of unpaid work that carers have to do, such as travelling from one client to the other. Providers don’t make an effort to ensure that clients are close by in order to avoid having to travel from one side of the city to the other. Neither do they get paid for staying longer with the client if they are waiting for the next carer to arrive, (who may be stuck in traffic). They are monitored through a clocking in system, to the point that if they leave 5 minutes early their wages are deducted.

Private carers aspire to public carer’s working terms and conditions.

The sector is split in three: there is a public, voluntary and private dimension to it. The voluntary sector is solely reliant on funding from the HSE, who contract them to provide homecare services. The private sector has grown substantially in the last 10 years. According to Orlagh Fawl, sector organiser for SIPTU, in 2007 there was approximately 2 private providers, and in the last 10 years this figure has grown to 47, and counting. International multinationals have also begun to enter the private sector market; for example, a homecare franchise called “Comfort Keepers” was bought by an international catering company called “Sodexo” last August 2015.

The HSE- run service is where most homecare workers aspire to be employed in. Compared to the private sector, the average rate of pay is 15 euro per hour, and they have guaranteed hours negotiated into their contract, so that they must be paid for a set period of time. They also have a pension, which they can avail of. Public sector carers also get paid for going from one client to the next. These terms and conditions were negotiated by their union, SIPTU.

The precarious nature of homecare in the private sector has made it very transient, which also impacts on the quality of the care that a client receives because that commitment to developing and delivering a good quality of life to that person in their home diminishes. Comparatively, while the turnover is high in the private sector, both the public and voluntary sectors are not.

Policy encouraging precarity in homecare sector

When a person needs home help, they are allocated a care package. This is about to change to care specific packages where the clients’ family can decide who they choose, which is allowing the private sector access to hours that were naturally allocated to homecare workers in the public and voluntary sectors.

Again, like the childcare and third level sectors, we can see that through this move insecure, low paid working conditions are being encouraged by state policy. Rather than building on the good terms and conditions that the homecare workers already have in the public sector, this move carries the risk of diminishing these, as more public money is diverted to private companies who hire homecare workers on these poor terms and conditions.

Furthermore, private sector companies are advertising additional services, such as Alzheimer’s care, meaning they are no longer just providing traditional home help, (light domestic duties and light medical duties). This could make it more attractive to families, not realising the working conditions for these carers.

A secure, well-paid carer is good for the client

As Orlagh Fawl from SIPTU revealed: “for most of them (homecare workers), their future ironically enough doesn’t involve just them; it’s about their clients. They want to see that their clients are looked after and that the service is built upon. They would like to remain as workers in homecare, but they find the lack of security a real challenge for them”.

Rather than divert funding to the private sector, the public homecare sector should be building on its services, so as to continue to promote working practices that are positive for both the homecare worker and the client.

Dr Sinéad Pembroke is a researcher in TASC working on the social implications of precarious work in Ireland project.

Posted in: Labour market

Tagged with: homecaresectorOrlagh FawlprecariousworkSIPTUzero-hours

Dr Sinead Pembroke

Pembroke, Sinead

Dr Sinéad Pembroke is a researcher at TASC on the Social Implications of Precarious Work project. She was an Irish Research Council (IRC) Postgraduate Scholar and completed her PhD in Sociology in University College Dublin. Sinead worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Trinity College Dublin developing an evidence-based educational resource for self-disclosure strategies for people with epilepsy (How2Tell). She also worked as a Research Fellow in University College Dublin on an Irish Research Council-funded project, “The Magdalene institutions: Recording an oral and archival history”. Sinéad has also worked on numerous health-related projects including co-authoring a report for the WISE UP Programme for Women Living and Working with Social Exclusion for the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).


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