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Support worker - for a supported living care provider
“I’d felt burned out, unheard, mistreated. Now, hope was giving me a newfound energy.”

Nuria has been a support worker since 2018. Based in Manchester, she works closely with people living with mental health problems. She’d always known that the social care sector was unfair on its workers. But it was the exhausting, high risk, poorly paid experience of working through Covid that pushed Nuria to join a union and take action.

Here Nuria describes working on the frontline of social care – and how she helped secure the Living Wage for thousands of support workers across Greater Manchester.

I became a support worker because I wanted to feel like I was helping people. I've got a fine arts degree and after university, I'd been mostly working in bars and restaurants. It was fine for a while but I didn't find it very rewarding. I've always been interested in mental health and I’m a pretty compassionate person, so I decided to get a job as a support worker.

No day is the same in support work. It’s very person centred – everyone has a different level of ability and independence and you have to work very holistically with them. There’s not really a rule book.

I’ve worked with older ladies who’ve been in supported accommodation for a very long time and probably won’t be moving on. This is very hands-on. I’ll help with their shopping, go to appointments with them, make sure their medication is up to date. I’ll liaise with their social worker and psychiatrist. We’ll do craft projects, like making decorations in the lead up to Christmas. I’ll look for opportunities for the ladies to attend some kind of training or course or day centre - anything that might be beneficial to their self-esteem and quality of life.

It's a different thing to work with younger people or people who haven’t been in services for long. They have the prospect of getting better, living on their own one day and getting a job. They tend to be a lot more independent. My job is to offer emotional support and help them to find opportunities, like going to college. 

Working with people who are not well can be very rewarding but it can also be really, really hard. People can treat you pretty badly when they aren’t well. Sometimes they forget that you're a person, that you have feelings too.

I’ve been in some really stressful situations, with staff being threatened and attacked. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. I'm not blaming anyone – when people are not feeling well, it’s only reasonable that at some point they might act in ways they don’t mean to.

I genuinely enjoy support work – I think it’s a very beautiful job. And I’d be totally willing to be in those stressful situations if I felt like I was being valued. But after a while, when you see your pay slip, you're feel like you're being taken for a ride.

Support workers are doing a real favour to society by helping people. You’re sometimes supporting people that have been struggling all of their lives and you’re helping them to become more independent - they might start volunteering or even get a job. They’re essentially going to be more productive members of society, which is beneficial for the community as a whole and the economy. So it’s ridiculous that support work is paid so badly. I mean, no job should pay badly - because all jobs are important to keep things moving.

Working through the pandemic was very frustrating. We had reduced staff levels to reduce the spread of covid, but we didn’t get paid extra. In a normal situation we’d have three people on a shift but during Covid we’d have just one. So I’d be doing a lot more work but I wasn’t getting compensated for it.

I remember some of my colleagues crying because they were so angry that we were working so much harder and being paid so badly. And some of the service users didn’t follow any of the lockdown rules, which made things really scary and uncertain.

I’d been pretty angry about the unfairness of the sector for some time. But with the pandemic in the mix, I realised how ridiculous everything was. All these people were clapping for us – but what where we actually getting? We were risking our health and the health of the people around us for just a tiny bit above the minimum wage. I started getting really angry and I didn’t know what to do.

I joined Unison in late 2020 and got a call from Jack, a Unison organiser, a couple of months later. He asked me how things were going at work and empathised about how hard things were for us. I felt so heard.

The call made me feel really motivated. I wrote a really long letter to the CEO of the company I work for. It was too much - too personal - so Jack helped me trim it down. We were essentially demanding the Living Wage. I showed the letter to my colleagues and they were really supportive. They were grateful that I’d had the energy to write it and pass it around.

The care sector is really hard to organise because everyone’s so spread out. It’s not like working in a hospital, where you know where everyone is. The people I needed to reach with my letter were working different shifts in different places. I didn’t know where they were or even who they were. 

Group photo
© Unison North west

By then I’d joined the bank team so that I’d have more flexibility – and I saw an opportunity. I’d see what shifts were available and I’d find places and people that I wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise.

I remember my first success – the first time I managed to plant my letter somewhere new. I’d got a shift at some supported accommodation that I’d never worked at before. Just before the end of my shift, I managed to sneakily speak to a member of staff who was friendly and sympathetic. I got her number, sent her my letter and asked her to send it to her all of her colleagues. On the tram home, I couldn’t stop smiling. I had this sense of victory – I was like, ‘Yes, I’ve done it!’. It felt like a real achievement.

At the same time I joined Unison’s Greater Manchester Care Workers Demand A Pay Rise campaign. I got some of my colleagues involved as well. We would go to council meetings and wait outside, doing small demos and speaking to councillors.

The first time I gave testimony was outside Trafford council. It was very on-the-spot but that was good, as I didn't have time to overthink it. Watching the video back, I was clearly very nervous, but you could tell I was angry and speaking from the heart.

Before, I’d felt burned out, unheard, mistreated. And I was very, very tired. Now I was working even harder because between shifts I was calling people to talk about the campaign. But I didn’t feel more drained – I felt renewed. It felt like hope was giving me a newfound energy.

In February 2022 we were invited to a meeting at Manchester City Council. This was the first time we actually sat down with councillors rather than just following them around. It felt good to be there with my colleagues and support workers from other companies and to be able to share the burden of the conditions and the pay. There was real empathy in that room. The councillors actually listened to what we had to say, which was a relief after everything we’d gone through. 

After that meeting, the council confirmed they’d approved the Living Wage. It felt like a victory but we didn’t want to get too excited as the money wasn’t in our bank accounts yet. It wasn’t until that actually happened that we were like, ‘Ok, this is for real – we got the Living Wage!’

Getting the Living Wage feels like a big relief - but it’s really unfortunate that bills and food have gone up so much. So even with the increase, it feels like we’re getting the same. But if we were still getting the wage we were on before, we would be in a way worse situation.

When I found out that you could do organising as an actual job, I was like, ‘What a dream! I can’t believe this is something you can do full time!’  I’d love to be doing that every day – going into workplaces and supporting people like Jack supported us. So I did a some organising courses with the Unison Organising Academy and then I applied for a local organiser job – and I got it! I can’t wait to start. I know I’m going to enjoy it and I feel I’m going to be good at it.  I could organise while working in the care sector, but it’s hard to do both at the same time.

A union is only as strong as its members. So if you join a union, get active in it – don’t wait until you have an individual problem. Contact an organiser and find out how you can get involved. We can do many, many things if we stick together and stand up against injustice.”

Dan Smith from Unison shares his experience

of working with Nuria

Unison organiser Dan Smith worked with Nuria on the Greater Manchester Care Workers Demand a Pay Rise campaign, which secured the Foundation Living Wage across six councils in Greater Manchester: Bolton, Rochdale, Oldham, Manchester, Salford and Stockport. This equates to a pay rise worth £19m for 25,000 workers. Dan now hopes the campaign’s success can be replicated across the region.

“The social care sector is one of the most exploited parts of public services. It’s scandalous, especially given how it was brought into sharp focus during the pandemic, when people stood on their doorsteps and clapped and cheered for care workers.

What Nuria and the other activists achieved with the Greater Manchester Care Workers Demand a Pay Rise campaign was massive. It gives us a really important springboard to launch this campaign in other places. Can we build the same sort of campaign in Merseyside and other areas of the north west?

We see this as the start of the process - it’s not the end. The Foundation Living Wage is the very minimum amount that care workers deserve for the job that they do. Everyone should be able to make ends meet from what they earn at work.”

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