Working for nothing

From Liberal Conspiracy, November 8 2007

In the London Borough of Barnet, a large number of careworkers who work for a grim outfit called the Fremantle Trust are planning another day of strike action this Saturday. Their dispute isn’t a Grunwick yet, but it’s on the road.

Fremantle careworkers Carmel Reynolds, Anne Quinn, Lango Gamanga and Sandra Jones say they knew their working lives were about to take a turn for the perverse when Fremantle management began talking about cutting careworkers’ sick pay and holiday allowances late last year.

It didn’t take long for the talk to evolve into policy. “It went from ‘we’re going to have to take your holidays and your sick pay’ to ‘we’ll do all that and we’ll freeze your pay and cut your weekend enhancements,” Reynolds says.

She and the other careworkers had been worried about their salaries and terms and conditions ever since Barnet Council outsourced its care contracts to Fremantle and transferred staff to the trust’s employ, but the council had fallen over itself to reassure careworkers their new employer would be as great as their old one. God knows those of us on the union circuit have heard that one a million times in the last few years, but unfortunately, there are hundreds of consultants out there who can still make it sound fresh at negotiating meetings, and even more local councillors who are dopey enough to fall for it, so it’ll be a factor until such time as leading members of the New Labour cadre stop privatising public services (fat chance) and/or decide to legislate to consolidate worker protection (ditto).

“Oh yes,” Reynolds says. “They said it was all going to be super-duper and we were going to be fine.”

As you’ve doubtless worked out, the council was talking out of a very wide hole in its proverbial. The Fremantle Trust has attacked its workforce with a fanaticism that has horrified those on the rough end of it. Quinn says that it was about a year ago that Fremantle started talking about ‘something having to go’ if the trust was to stay afloat financially (the trust’s 2005 to 2006 annual report shows a reasonable operating surplus, as does its just-posted 2006 to 2007 one. I will be looking into this in more detail in later posts).

The cuts to sick pay and annual leave were bad enough but, as Gamanga says, it was the attacks on enhancements and weekend pay that really frightened staff. With an hourly rate of just over £8 (Barnet Unison says about £6 an hour for new Fremantle employees), weekend enhancements made up a large part of careworkers’ wages. They got time-and-a-half on Saturday, and double-time on Sunday. The weekend money was the difference between paying the mortgage and not paying it.

“Some people are down three or four hundred (pounds) a month,” Reynolds says. “People organise their families around [that money]. You build up your lifestyle based on the money you’re earning. Then, they suddenly cut your money.” She’d been in the job for 23 years by this stage. The careworkers didn’t have much choice about accepting the new terms and conditions, either. They were told they could either sign up to them, or get lost.

Gamanga says that Fremantle management did have a response for those staff who were worried about the loss of income. “They said we could do more hours to make up the money.” She said that was always going to be a challenge for her – she has children to look after, and works part-time (often on weekends, for the enhancements) to do that.

“I said [to management] – how do you expect us to be able to cope, because as everyone knows in this country, for them [banks] to loan you money, it depends on your status. Everything is on how your earning is going. What they said to us is that you have to do extra hours. But what about the quality of our life – our daily life?”

Indeed. One wonders how well those of us in well-paid, white-collar jobs would respond if management suddenly told us our wages would be cut by £300 a month, especially if senior management remained well-paid.

The money
Distribution of resources is the issue of all issues in the public sector at the moment. When I was a union activist in local government, we spent half our lives trying to get the council’s finance director to explain why she was spending small fortunes (upwards of £200,000) on consultants for ‘change management’ and ‘business process re-engineering’ projects. “What do you want me to say, Kate?” she screamed at me at one meeting.

“That’s just what they’re paid!” Indeed they are. I’ve done work for companies that ‘supply’ the public sector myself and am happy to report that the money is excellent. All of which is a long way of saying that the only way to protect low-paid people from the excesses of capitalism is by legislating in their favour. Relying on benevolence doesn’t pay.

“The whole notion of carework is being derailed,’ Reynolds says. ‘I wouldn’t recommend people going into the care sector now. It’s not just because of the loss of terms and conditions. It’s the whole working ethos. It feels a bit like a warehouse.”

“They [Fremantle] are cheating us,” Gamanga. “They are making us looking after so many people at one time. Most of the homes are short-staffed, which I believe is deliberate (Fremantle’s 2005 to 2006 annual report discusses problems with staff retention).”

Gamanga likes the people she looks after, though. “Yes, you enter the building and you’re unhappy, but the residents, they try to make you feel better. They say ‘can I help you? ‘ They were supportive when we were having the strike. The relatives are very supportive. They’re very aware.”

Reynolds says that all the careworkers want is to get their money, sick pay and annual leave back. “We don’t want any more than that. We just want what we had.”

Quinn sighs. “If I was younger, I would go somewhere else,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be here. I would go.”

Useful links:

Barnet Unison blog (with details of Saturday’s protest)
Unison National Executive committee member Jon Rogers raises Fremantle issues with trust CE Carole Sawyers
LabourStart – campaigning website the Fremantle Trust tried to close.

2 thoughts on “Working for nothing

  1. Pingback: Barnet strikes – Kate Belgrave

  2. Pingback: Question: How did carework end up in such dire straits? Answer: outsourcing | Kate Belgrave

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