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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

At Unison conference

by New Worker correspondent

LOCAL government union Unison’s annual conference has just taken place in Liverpool. The union’s various sections had much to grumble about but were ready for a fight.

Quoting Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum that there were “Lies, damned lies and statistics” was how Shirley Scott opened a debate on zero-hours contracts at Unison’s local government conference at Liverpool on Monday.

Her target was zero-hours contracts in local government, “particularly in social care”, which she said are linked to “privatisation” and are simply a “cost-cutting measure”.

Casualisation of the workforce is also having a negative impact on sick pay and pensions.

Zero-hours contracts have seen workers punished for ‘late notification’ of not being able to do a shift even when circumstances meant that they could not have given earlier warning.

Another social care worker for a private employer in north London spoke of how workers were all underpaid and too scared to take sick leave: “We need to bring all social care back in-house. We are suffering from zero-hours contracts.”

From Camden Branch, Liz Wheatley described zero-hours contracts as “an attack on all of us”, noting that Labour-run Camden councillors had defended using such contracts on the grounds of “flexibility”.

Manjula Kamari for the national Black members’ committee noted: “We know that employers are increasingly using zero-hours contracts in the public sector and particularly for women and Black workers.” He added that “with no regular income, but a job on paper, claiming benefits is difficult at best”, even if you don’t get any work in a given week.

Susan Hamilton from Belfast education branch said that such contracts are “as and when” contracts. They are exploitative and entirely for the benefit of employers. “There should be no place for them in the public sector,” she demanded.

Conference voted unanimously for the union to campaign for a change in the law to make such contracts illegal in local government, to ensure that where such contracts are used there are no punishment clauses for non-attendance, and to review guidance for local government branches on zero-hours contracts.

The union denounced the “national scandal” of the social care system that is being “ripped off” by private contractors.

Birmingham care worker Mandy Buckley recounted how care workers in the city recently won their fights against the council’s plan to cut their hours and pay: “We had our victory … but if the carers did not stand together, we would probably not be here today.”

“I’m urging people to get out there, get organised,” she stressed, adding that “all care workers are low paid, care needs to be valued, care needs to be publicised” and “all care services need to be brought back in house”.

Another worker in the same boat, Christine Colin from Bolton, said that private employers in particular exploit care workers’ dedication in order to pay them below the national minimum wage — not least by relying on them to work longer time (unpaid) to ensure that the proper care is given.

Ethical Care

She also observed that all employers should sign up to UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, which commits them to treat carers to a minimum set of standards. This in turn benefits those needing care — such as by stopping the practice of insisting that any care visit is a maximum of 15 minutes long, irrespective of need.

Jim McFarlane from Scottish National Party-ruled Dundee said: “For far too long, social care and social care workers have been undervalued and under-funded.

“It’s not good enough that far too many social care workers don’t get paid for travel time, are made to pay for their own uniforms by some companies and only get three minutes for a visit.”

The previous day delegates heard that increasingly housing is out of reach for many public service workers.

Pointing out that rents have risen six per cent more than wages, delegate Mark Chiverton said: “It’s almost impossible now for many of our members to live in many of our towns and cities, with homes out of reach.”

A young member’s delegate, Mike Daniel, who works in Exeter for Devon County Council, gave a graphical example of his own case when he described how, with earning just over £10 per hour, he can’t afford to live in the city in which he works. It would cost more than £500 per month for a flat share in the city, or £700 per month for a studio flat in a shared building with no privacy, he reported.

The delegates demanded that the government fund social housing properly, set up a new definition of affordable housing that is linked to people’s incomes, not market prices, stronger regulation of the private rented sector and an end to the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme.

As the debate took place just after the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, executive speaker John McLoughlin said it was a disgrace that “there are still people across the UK living in towers with the same deadly cladding”, adding: “I’m not bothered by what Tories had up their noses, I’m bothered by the blood on their hands.”

The union also demanded that British councils win back “the ability to rebuild their depleted housing development workforce” and their housing stock.

Council house building has collapsed since the borrowing cap imposed on local government by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Although the cap has now been lifted, it is now decades since councils had the experience and workforce that provided much of the hundreds of thousands of new homes the country needs each year.

Tower Hamlets delegate Mark Lancaster said there has been “a massive withdrawal of public finance. We need a government that doesn’t privilege the private sector, so that councils can build”.