Why we need public ownership of social care

The following is excerpted from Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome’s 7 May article in the Guardian, written after she was sacked from the care job to which she returned during the pandemic – for speaking out about the issue of Personal Protective Equipment. We are republishing it because Nadia makes very clearly the essential argument that the alarming situation in social care is in large part a result of privatisation, and that we need to fight for democratic public ownership of the sector.

For more on campaigning for public ownership of social care, see here.

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The experience of returning to work filled me with love and admiration for my colleagues, who are paid poverty wages to do the essential, skilled and, now, dangerous task of providing care for people. But 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.

People do not become care workers for the pay and glamour, and most could earn more working in a pub or any other precarious employment. More often than not, they are confronted with ruthless private sector management practices and bosses with little or no frontline experience. With tight margins to maintain, the insinuation is often that demanding basic rights and pay for yourself means that you do not care about the people you look after.

As the UK becomes officially the worst-affected country in Europe, we must reflect on what has gone wrong and what we can do better. Some things – like locking down early, testing widely and providing adequate PPE – can be done by planning more effectively and clearly moving away from the notion of “herd immunity”. Other solutions 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. On the ground, I hope that this crisis has given care workers the confidence and pride to join a union and demand better.

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