Minimum wage is least care workers deserve | Gavin Kelly

If we really care about elderly people, the practice of paying care workers less than minimum wage must be stamped out

A good thing about the national minimum wage, you might think, is that even if it's set at a pretty modest level you can at least be sure that everyone will receive it. Sure, there will be the odd rogue employer who needs to be tackled for non-compliance. But it's not like there will be a major sector where there are large numbers of workers being paid less than the minimum. Because that would be illegal. So it wouldn't happen.

By and large you'd be right – but when it comes to those caring for elderly people, particularly providing care in the home, you'd be wrong. Here the flouting of the minimum wage risks becoming the new normal.

There are a variety of employment practices that result in the minimum wage being circumvented, the most common of which is when councils sign contracts with private providers who recruit staff to provide short slivers of care in the home. A quarter of an hour can be all that a care worker gets to wash, change, feed and talk to someone with dementia.

The ticking clock means both those receiving and giving care lose out. Dignity for the client is often the first casualty: a variety of groups representing the vulnerable, as well as some of the more scrupulous employers, fear that rushed care contracted by the minute often means inadequate care. Yet recent freedom-of-information investigations show that almost half of councils still set 15 minutes as their minimum time slot.

Care workers lose out very directly too: it's common for highly opaque remuneration systems to be used that, among other things, only pay per minute actually spent with clients, not the travel time between them. Dozens of these work-related journeys could be made each week – it's a core part of the job. Not being paid for this time means those who care don't get paid for a full day's work (and this is before we consider the fact that it's common not to get compensation for the cost of travel, the obligatory use of mobile phones, or the price of a criminal record check).

This is in clear breach of how the minimum wage is supposed to work in relation to travel time. It's long been known, of course, that care is a low-pay sector, but until recently there has been only a very sketchy sense of the numbers receiving less than the minimum wage. Now an authoritative study by Dr Shereen Hussein, of King's College London, estimates that there are between 150,000 and 220,000 care workers in this position. And this is using conservative assumptions – the real number could be higher.

If you haven't heard about this issue before, then you won't be alone. There is very little media interest and no political campaign, celebrity speaking out or public outrage. (Just compare this with the eruption over unpaid graduate internships.) Our largely forgotten care workforce – 80% female, low-skilled, lightly unionised at the bottom end, and with a high proportion of migrant workers – has little political muscle and few powerful friends.

Yet the relevant public agencies are well aware of the problem. The Department for Business (which oversees the minimum wage) has just produced guidance for employers making it crystal clear that care workers should be paid for travel time between clients. HM Revenue and Customs, whose job it is to enforce the minimum wage, expresses concern. And Paul Burstow, the care services minister, recently volunteered that it is "bad practice" to ration care by the minute. Plenty of talk, but the practice continues.

In part this reflects the temptation just to sigh and say that at root it's all due to the cuts and the underlying inadequate funding of care, so there is, regrettably, nothing that can be done. And of course funding is a crucial issue. But it also gives everyone an alibi. Care providers can point at councils, councils can blame their inadequate grant on Whitehall, the Department of Health can finger the Treasury, and so on.

None of which is of any comfort to the out-of-pocket care worker. When the national minimum wage was created, there wasn't small print saying "but you only get paid if your employer decides they can afford it". It's supposed to be the law of the land, not a nice-to-have.

At a time when the minimum wage continues to fall in real terms – it's now back at the level it was in 2004 – it is imperative that public awareness is maintained and that enforcement is prioritised. Those who don't comply must be named and punished. The risk is that in some sectors – not only social care – the wage floor is increasingly undermined by a growth in casualised employment patterns. Given this, the decision to freeze the already meagre budget for publicity and enforcement is deeply worrying.

If we truly care about dignity for elderly people, as all politicians endlessly say they do, we have to end patterns of care that fail to meet their most basic needs – and we also need to have consideration for those we entrust to look after them. The minimum wage is the very least they should expect. Resolving this can't wait until some distant future when a new funding settlement for care is finally agreed. Cases need to be taken; unions should agitate; and Whitehall departments and agencies must do their job and end this scandal.

• This article was amended on 19 April 2012. The headline and sub-heading originally used the word "carers", where "care workers" was meant. Carers are unpaid family members, partners or friends. This has now been corrected


Gavin Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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