Public Interest Law Centre

public law | human rights | legal action

1May 2024

“I Don’t Need Claps. I Need Proper PPE and Dignified Pay”

1st May 2024|

Covid-19 Inquiry Module 6: PILC Represents Workers Who Were Disproportionately Affected as they Took Care of Society’s Most Vulnerable During the Pandemic

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As the government tried to create capacity during the first few months of the pandemic, hospitals were forced to discharge patients into the care sector or back to care in their own homes. The policy in March 2020 and admissions guidance for care homes in April 2020 meant that asymptomatic patients were discharged without testing or isolation. 

It was during this time that members of the Frontline Migrant Health Workers Group (FMHWG) experienced just how disproportionate the impact of being precariously employed and a migrant care worker was. 

Who are FMHWG?

The FMHWG consists of three organisations: Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), United Voices of the World (UVW) and Kanlungan, who represent workers from working class migrant communities.

The majority of their members worked in the privatised care sector and were on the frontline of the pandemic. Many of them worked in the informal/under-regulated care sector in private homes. And were often populated by clinically vulnerable residents and staffed by the most disadvantaged workers.

Unprotected

FMHWG members report a complete lack of PPE in care homes at the outset of the pandemic, leaving them exposed and unprotected when hospital patients were discharged into their care. 

UVW workers at a nursing home in North London were forced to make their own masks before they were eventually provided with just one single-use surgical facemask for each 12-hour shift. 

Outsourced workers report being denied sick pay, adequate PPE, or access to the vaccination programme in comparison to directly-employed staff.

Domestic/domiciliary care workers make up a large cohort of FMHWG members, particularly the Kanlungan membership. Many have employment contracts that form the basis of their continued immigration status. They often have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) conditions attached. A large proportion have irregular immigration status and are informally employed without contracts.

During the pandemic, domestic workers were exposed to significant risk through a lack of PPE. There was often an expectation to keep working even when either they or their employers were infected with Covid-19.

What’s more, is that these workers were invisible to national statistics. They weren’t counted towards the already significantly higher infection and mortality rates experienced by ethnic minority communities. 

They faced the same issues as their outsourced colleagues and their documented colleagues but with the additional burden of the Government’s hostile environment policies.

Profit before people: the stats 

Before the pandemic in 2019, it was estimated that just 6% of care sector workers were employed by the NHS, and 7% by local authorities. A massive 61% were employed by private providers.

On average, the people employed by private companies earned less than publicly employed care workers. The average pay in the private care sector was around £8.40 an hour, while local authorities and the NHS averaged over £10 an hour. 

In addition to this significant pay disparity, one third of adult social care jobs in the private sector were classed as insecure. Around 25% of workers in the sector and 35% of care workers were also subject to zero-hours contracts.

Care workers in the FMHWG reported low staff retention and chronic understaffing pre-pandemic. These unsafe working conditions were made much worse when the virus ripped through the care sector. On 11 May 2020 the Office of National Statistics reported that care workers and home care workers were among the occupations that were at the highest risk of death. 

Against this dangerous backdrop, care sector workers were some of the lowest paid workers in the country – even when they had a permanent contract.

Outsourced workers who lacked the contractual protection and bargaining power to demand safer conditions from their employers were at great risk. Migrant care workers were even more vulnerable, as their immigration status was often tied to employment. 

Workers who raised concerns about employers’ demands to continue in the height of the pandemic  – however unreasonable and unsafe – were at very real risk of losing both their job and their home. Migrant workers who were undocumented or had overstayed had no protection at all.

Outsourcing the problem

The Government’s post-pandemic response to the shortage of care workers was to issue employment-linked visas to 70,000 overseas workers in 2023. This outsourced the problem internationally and subsidised the cost of care in the UK through low wages.

Workers with no-recourse to public funds (NRPF) are finding themselves destitute in the event of sickness. If migrant workers are to fill the gaps caused by an under-funded, privatised system, then they have to be properly treated and protected when they do so.

The FMHWG’s membership cared for residents who should have been in hospitals. They sat with them when they died. They did so whilst exposed and unprotected themselves, taking the virus back home to their own families when they finished work. They did all of that on a wage that cannot be lived on, in work that is wrongly considered to be menial.

In the words of one of the FMHWG’s members who refused to move when management told her to go to the care home window to acknowledge clapping: “I don’t need claps. I need proper PPE and dignified pay”.

IWGB, UVW and Kanlungan launched campaigns, engaged with government, compiled reports, and brought strategic legal claims to fight for their members rights and protections during this time and continue to do so.

Find the full transcript at: https://covid19.public-inquiry.uk/documents/submissions-from-the-frontline-migrant-healthworkers-group-dated-11-march-2024/

PILC instructed Piers Marquis of Doughty Street Chambers to represent FMHWG in the Covid-19 Inquiry Module 6 Preliminary Hearing that investigates the impact that the pandemic had on the publicly and privately funded adult social care sector.