Since the Covid-19 crisis hit, millions more people have taken on caring responsibilities, the majority of these being women. Many are having to juggle their day jobs and caring commitments, often having to use their holiday entitlement or take unpaid leave to deal with unexpected demands.
These carers, left high and dry by our underfunded social care system, end up losing out financially, sometimes even having to give up their jobs.
This is the reality faced by more and more working people.
The government’s proposals to give carers unpaid leave don’t offer the support that working carers need. Under the government’s approach, only the fortunate few who can afford it will benefit.
Unpaid carers save the UK £132 billion every year. At the very least, they need enough paid leave to help them balance their caring and work commitments.
The Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) is consulting on a proposal to give employees five days of unpaid leave each year to provide care.
The TUC has submitted a response to the Carer’s Leave consultation. We are calling on government to:
A shocking report by Carers UK shows there has been a massive increase in the number of carers during the pandemic. 4.5 million people have started providing unpaid care, with 2.8 million of these in employment. This represents nearly a 50 per cent increase in the number of unpaid carers since the crisis began.
The number of unpaid carers in the UK is now estimated to be a staggering 13.6 million, the majority of whom are women.
Women are more vulnerable to economic hardship during this crisis than men. They are more likely to be employed on insecure and zero-hours contracts - particularly BME and migrant women - and to be working part-time. They miss out on working parents’ and carers’ rights, such as flexible working, unpaid parental leave and time off for family and dependents.
Many carers in work are also living in poverty. A recent report highlighted that carers - especially women and those in some age groups - are reporting more hunger in their households, and are twice as likely to use food banks as other people. Their mental wellbeing has deteriorated since before the pandemic and is lower than that of others.
Why has there been an increase in carers?
Unpaid care by families has increased as social care has struggled. The TUC has highlighted the lack of critical PPE and testing of social care staff and service users that allowed Covid-19 to sweep through social care.
In the social care sector the combination of narrowing eligibility thresholds to access publicly-funded care and an ageing population with increasingly complex needs places significant pressure on unpaid carers, who often have care needs of their own – around two million of the UK’s carers are aged 65 or over.
This overreliance on informal care is taking a toll on carers and is not a sustainable way for the government to run such a critical part of the country’s welfare state.
We need a fundamental review of how care is commissioned and provided. Crucially, we also need to end the spiral of low pay and exploitation of the workforce and to show them that the essential public service they provide is valued.
Barriers carers face accessing employment rights
The crisis has revealed the limited rights most workers have to handle domestic emergencies. A study of working carers found that one in four carers had considered giving up their paid job.
Covid-19 is causing enormous disruption to childcare provision, placing significant limits on the opening of schools and nurseries, bringing a new urgency to the need to deliver enhanced rights around flexible working.
Under current employment rights legislation, many working parents and carers will be faced with no choice but to request unpaid time off. This is either in the form of unpaid parental leave or time off for family and dependents.
A University and College Union (UCU) survey highlighted one of the main issues unpaid carers faced was the need to take time off (sometimes at short notice). Respondents reported having to take unpaid time off from work during crises, such as if the person they cared for had a fall or became suddenly unwell.
Some highlighted the particular challenges of having to be available for a family member who had autism, dementia or a mental health condition, whose needs were often very unpredictable. A University of Sheffield report showed that 46 per cent of working carers had used their own annual leave to provide care. 15 per cent had taken sick leave to provide care.
The National Education Union (NEU) reports that education staff are generally required to take their entitlement to annual leave during school and college closure periods, giving them few options if they need time off to care for someone during term time.
This just isn’t right.
We need flexible working arrangements and paid care
Carer’s leave is only a part of what is needed to allow workers to balance employment and caring commitments.
Flexible working options such as flexi-time, compressed hours, job sharing and home working have an important role to play. From their first day in a job, all workers should have the right to work flexibly.
With the number of sandwich carers - those who have caring responsibilities for dependent children as well as adults - growing rapidly, urgent action is required to improve workers’ rights in relation to parental leave and childcare.
But for carer’s leave to play any role at all, it is vital that it is paid. Without it, a right to unpaid leave would be a right in name only, a luxury for those who were affluent enough but unaffordable for most.
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