On 6 May Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome, who returned to her old care job after the Covid-19 crisis hit, was sacked for speaking publicly about PPE shortages in the industry.
She used the burst of publicity to argue not only for workers’ rights and unionisation, but also for “democratic public ownership” of care. Labour movement activists should take up that call.
Nadia wrote in the Guardian:
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… the insinuation is often that demanding basic rights and pay for yourself means that you do not care about the people you look after…
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...
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.
The article concluded:
On the ground, I hope that this crisis has given care workers the confidence and pride to join a union and demand better.
It clearly identified the root problem in who owns and control care provision:
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.
Many Labour MPs would leave it there, but Nadia advocated a clear solution for the labour movement to fight for. The deep crises in social care, she argued:
...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.
This matches the policy passed at last year’s Labour Party conference (see last section here). Yet as far as we know Nadia Whittome is the only Labour politician to have publicly argued for it.
Trade union and Labour activists should take up the call for public ownership of care provision and make it a campaigning banner.
The demand for public ownership should be linked to campaigns to drive up care workers’ pay and conditions. We must raise two urgent demands to at least mitigate the spread of the virus and wider chaos and damage:
1. Emergency measures to ensure adequate PPE for all working in or attending care homes and home care, organised accountably from the public sector;
2. The right of all workers to self-isolate on full pay.
Anything less fails in our duty to the millions of people who in one way or another rely on the care system.
• Nadia Whittome has called for any care workers facing pressure, threats or discipline for raising issues about PPE to contact her office.