Sarah Anderson of the Foster Care Workers Union says those looking after the most vulnerable need better pay and job protection, even if it means changing the law
Working with no employment rights is one of the big downsides of the so-called gig economy. Now foster care workers are joining bike couriers and taxi drivers to fight for the recognition they deserve.
Sarah Anderson fosters teenagers and is so angry she is the new face of the Foster Care Workers Union. Its aim: to secure employment rights for the 55,000 foster families in the UK.
Anderson says the current system is essentially broken and does not help those who need it most – the children – because it is archaic. Foster carers are technically self-employed, but they can work for only one local authority or independent foster agency at a time in England, and will often only earn while they have a child placed with them.
“We’re the epitome of the gig economy,” says Anderson. “But the care we give these children on behalf of their corporate parent – the government – is important. We need and deserve workers’ rights and professional respect.”
Anderson loves her job, but she says most foster care workers are underpaid and undervalued, and desperately need the help of the FCWU, which launched as a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), in September 2016. “There are many thousands of us who are, frankly, being taken advantage of through low pay, slashed allowances, no job protection and the fear of false allegation,” she stresses.
Anderson is one of the 60 foster care workers who voted to unionise and is now the branch’s spokeswoman. “I fundamentally think this will drive up standards in foster care. If you treat people better whilst they’re doing a job – and this is a job – they’ll do it better.”
Social care cuts have gone “from the fat to the bone”, according to The Fostering Network. The charity reported in April 2016 that two-thirds of foster care workers in the UK felt falling budgets had harmed the children they look after, with 70% saying their own payments were cut. Just last week, Bradford became the latest council to vote to cut allowances for its foster carers
Foster carers receive an allowance per child, which varies according to age or if they have special needs – this is to be spent solely on the child’s share of food, utilities, school uniform, transport and other essentials. The basic weekly allowance for a primary school-aged child is £139, but this increases in London and the south-east to £163 and £156 respectively.
Some also receive a fee, The Fostering Network says half of all UK foster carers receive no fee at all and are increasingly subsidising cut allowances from their own pockets.
Agencies that supply foster carers to local authorities, at some cost, typically pay them much more and are capable of fronting up financial benefits – so-called golden hellos. It is a practice Anderson disapproves of because it puts councils – who cannot offer such incentives – at a disadvantage.
Although money is not the main reason families choose to foster, herself included, Anderson believes earnings should be significant for the most experienced who look after the most challenging children. “We do what nobody else wants to,” explains Anderson. “We’re looking after some of our most troubled, difficult children, 24 hours a day. It’s a job which can bring you to your knees, but it’s worth it when you see a child succeed, even in the smallest way.” Anderson can net up to £58,000 in fees and allowances a year looking after two “damaged and traumatised young people with serious mental health needs”. But broken down, the £550 in fees and allowances she gets per child per week equates to around £3.20 an hour. “I think that shows we’re no fat cats,” she observes. “People think we’re the baddies for taking money, but you wouldn’t ask a paediatric nurse or a teacher to work for nothing. We are no different – and the more highly skilled we are, the more we should be paid.
“This is my career. We do a valuable job for society, but because we have no employment status, we’re terribly insecure. We can be deregistered by a local authority or agency at any time, with no explanation. We absolutely need this union,” she says, adding that during a time of cuts, safeguarding workers is more important than ever. “Put it this way: if there are no foster carers, there’s no foster care.”
Anderson says having workers’ employment status would give foster carers more recognition from social services, the government and also the public. “I think many people have no idea what it’s like to do this job,” she says with a wry smile. “Not only are we in loco parentis, providing a stable, loving and boundaried home environment, we are highly skilled, highly trained workers. If you’ve trained and worked hard to be a professional, you need to be treated as one.” She also believes the perceived low status is putting potential foster carers off, something the system can little afford, given that around 9,000 more are needed in the UK in the next year.
Although the FCWU is in a fledgling stage, with just a few hundred members, momentum is high, according to the IWGB. Its most pressing task is to get legislation passed to get workers’ rights status. “We want job protection, fair pay – including pay protection – holiday entitlement and protection when we’re sick – just like any other workers,” says Anderson.
Although she says there is no shortage of volunteers among foster carers for a test case, such as the one recently won by IWGB on behalf of a courier for CitySprint, this isn’t being pursued yet. Instead, the union is setting up an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) to look at employment rights for foster care workers – in a bid to get legislative change.
“We need the APPG to lobby parliament to change legislation for foster carers, dragging the way we currently work into the 21st century,” she says.
Anderson also wants foster care workers protected from unfounded allegations. “I’ve got direct experience of the stress and upset of this, as well as the loss of livelihood whilst they’re investigated. It should not take upwards of four months to investigate an allegation – we want a shorter and more transparent process and appropriate union and legal representation for the foster care workers facing them. We also want compensation if they are proved unfounded.”
And because they do not have worker employment status, foster carers are not protected by current whistleblowing law either – this is something the union will address, too – although Anderson is cynical about whether this alone will be an incentive for carers to speak out. “Often, foster carers are working in a climate of fear,” she says.
The union also wants a central and independent register for foster care workers – for their own benefit as well as for that of the local authorities and agencies. “Currently, local authorities and [independent fostering agencies] have to assess foster care workers each time they move, which costs time and money and removes them from the carer pool. This will save time and money,” says Anderson. But would it be safe? “All foster care workers need to be thoroughly vetted and under any new system they would be.”
She also wants the union to give independent support and advice to foster care workers. “Most existing advice has been devised by social workers – any job in child social care is difficult, but they’re at a different coalface to us.”
Most of all, Anderson wants to see positive change affecting the outcomes of the children she looks after. “We love them, but someone has to stand up and say that looking after a child, keeping them safe and giving them a chance in life – whilst being paid and treated as a professional by society – are not mutually exclusive.”
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