The future government has an opportunity to transform social care, and it starts with the real Living Wage

With just over a week to go until the General Election, our Campaigns Manager Bethan Spacey discusses the importance of a real Living Wage for all adult social care workers in England. 

The pandemic highlighted the vital importance of care workers, but despite weeks of clapping on our doorsteps, social care remains one of the most precarious and poorly paid sectors in the UK. The next government has an opportunity to change this. 

New analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that over 400,000 adult social care workers in England are paid below the real Living Wage. The real Living Wage, based on the cost of living, is currently £12 in the UK and £13.15 in London. This means 43% of adult social care workers in England earn less than they need to live, rising to 80% in London. More than half of workers earning below the real Living Wage said they regularly visit food banks and skip meals. How can we expect care workers to look after others when we’re not paying them enough to properly feed themselves?

The main barrier to better pay in this sector is the limited public funding for social care services. These services are primarily commissioned by local governments but delivered by private and third-sector employers. Years of budget cuts have exacerbated the issue, trapping care workers in a cycle of low pay and high stress, and causing a recruitment and retention crisis across the social care sector.

Change is already happening at a regional level. Devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have already taken steps to ensure hundreds of thousands of care workers receive the real Living Wage. In April, people affected by low pay and insecure work came together via Citizens UK to host mayoral assemblies, securing support from mayors in London, the West Midlands, the North East, and Greater Manchester for a real Living Wage for all social care workers. And in June, over 19 local authorities signed an open letter to Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer asking for a meeting to discuss how to ensure that care workers in England can earn the real Living Wage.

The IPPR estimates that implementing this policy in England would require a relatively modest investment of £415 million. After accounting for additional income tax and national insurance from higher wages, the net cost would fall to £330 million—less than 2% of the social care budget for the coming year.

The benefits of paying the real Living Wage extend beyond fairness and dignity for the individual worker – it is an investment in the sector and the wider economy. Higher wages would improve staff recruitment and retention in the social care sector (vacancy rates are currently around 10%), enhancing the availability and quality of care. This, in turn, would alleviate pressures on the NHS by reducing the number of people needing hospital treatment and supporting quicker, safer hospital discharges.

Skills for Care estimates that for every £1 invested in social care, £1.75 would be generated in the wider economy. Research for the Living Wage Foundation has shown that if a quarter of low-paid workers had their pay increased to the real Living Wage, the UK economy would grow by £1.7 billion through increased consumer spending and productivity benefits.

There are already over 650 care providers who have voluntarily accredited with the Living Wage Foundation. Despite challenges in the sector, providers have committed to paying their staff decent wages. They demonstrate that higher pay benefits not just workers, but businesses too. 

For too long, the importance of care work has been undervalued and underfunded. The next government has an opportunity to create lasting change in the social care sector. It starts with investing in the workforce and ensuring all adult social care workers are paid at least the real Living Wage.

Our sister organisation Citizens UK has co-produced three overarching asks to the future government with those impacted by low pay and insecure work:

  1. Ensure all social care workers in England are paid at least the real Living Wage, building on the example set by Scotland and Wales.
  2. Embed and promote the real Living Wage and ‘living hours’ through UK procurement and grant-making, supporting a race to the top where employers who provide the real Living Wage and living hours are recognized and incentivized with government contracts and grants.
  3. Strengthen people’s rights and access to predictable, sufficient hours, learning from the Living Wage Foundation’s Living Hours standard.

The upcoming General Election is an opportunity to build on this local progress at the national level. The next government has a chance to impact the lives of millions by committing to a real Living Wage in social care, strengthening workers’ rights to sufficient and predictable hours, and encouraging a race to the top in public procurement.

You can read the full Citizens UK manifesto here.