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Wage theft among UK care workers 'likely to increase'

London continues to cut the elderly social care budget while promising a higher minimum wage to care workers. Analysts think this will mean even more 'wage theft,' where workers are cheated out of part of their salary.

Britain's relatively lax labor laws and a near crisis in funding for social care for the elderly is leading to an estimated 184 million euros (130 million pounds, $197 million) to go missing from care workers' salaries annually, the UK think-tank The Resolution Foundation has warned.

In a report earlier this year, it said around 10 percent of the UK's home care workers – around 160,000 people - had been paid less than the minimum wage, when all of their working time was calculated.

One of them was Alison Thomas who works as a home care worker on the edges of the English counties of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of London.

Previously hired by an employment agency, she would visit several clients' home each day to ensure they were out of bed, washed and fed. She also provided specialist care to those with mobility issues, often living with debilitating illnesses.

Alison Thomas

Alison Thomas says she was cheated out of a substantial amount of money because of a loophole

After a few weeks of working with the agency, she noticed a discrepancy in her monthly wage and compared notes with some of the other care workers.

"We found that we would be given a week's work and then there may be things (clients) added onto our weekly rota...and we found that for clients that were added, we got paid but it wasn't the full payment," Thomas told DW.

Pay crunch

She worked out that she was receiving about 2 pounds and four pence per hour for the extra duties. Her rate of pay at the time was 8 pounds and the UK national minimum wage is currently set at 6 pounds 70.

She and her colleagues were regularly cheated out of hundreds of pounds every month, due to the agency paying less for certain jobs, not paying for time in between client visits and scrimping on petrol money to travel to clients' homes.

Union representatives think Britain's care workers are among the country's most monitored workers, which allows agencies to avoid paying them for part of their commitment.

"A lot of care workers are actually tagged (with tracking devices) and they're only paid for the time they spend giving care to a client," said Walton Pantland from Union Solidarity International.

"Instead of being paid for a day's work, they do a day's work, travelling around the place, doing really, really hard work - essential work, caring for people - and end up taking home less than the minimum wage, because of this loophole that employers have found which includes only paying people for client contact time," Pantland added.

Higher wages promised

The British government has pledged to tackle low wages by introducing a so-called Living Wage, higher than the minimum wage, that will be set independently in line with the cost of living.

ältere Menschen

An elderly UK resident, sitting next to her fire. Tens of thousands of people get as little as 15 minutes in home care per day

Campaigners hope that it will benefit social care workers but only if the overall budget for social care provision is increased.

Recently, the Resolution Foundation estimated that by increasing the Living Wage to 9 pounds per hour by 2020, the social care sector will need to find an extra 2.3 billion pounds in salaries annually.

But five years of austerity cuts have eaten into local UK authorities' budgets, the part of the state that pays for home care workers. An extra half a billion pounds of savings are due to be made this year, which many analysts believe will put additional pressure on employment agencies, who bid to arrange in-home care services.

Already, tens of thousands of elderly people receive as little as 15 minutes care time per day.

Wage Theft Book

Kim Bobo, author of the book 'Wage theft', says standards are needed for domestic workers

In the US, 'wage theft' is already a big issue. Several states have introduced harsher penalties for companies that fail to pay staff the minimum wage. The new legislation was introduced after millions of employees were misclassified so that firms and agencies could pay them less.

"It's really just been in the last year in the US, that home care workers fought to get a new regulation for overtime," workers' rights campaigner Kim Bobo told DW.

The author of the book "Wage Theft in America" said California and New York have passed a 'domestic workers' bill of rights” that are "really outlining some core standards for home care workers."

'Workers should organize'

Bobo partly blames a fall in the popularity of unions for the exploitation of millions of domestic and social care workers.

"Nothing changes without organizing, employers aren't going to change, agencies aren't going to change," she added. Bobo, who was the founding director of the campaign group Interfaith Workers' Justice said in the US, there's only a handful of non-profit home care agencies, and accused many 'for profit' agencies of "making big bucks off the backs of low-wage workers."

After her bad experience with an employment agency, home care worker Alison Thomas and a colleague set up their own business and now get paid directly by her clients. For her, caring has become a long-term career rather than a part-time job that she struggled to make work.

"Our work is private. All our clients are private, bar one. We are so thoroughly welcomed by our clients because we do go in to their homes, happy," she told DW.

The British government has investigated around a hundred care providers for failing to pay the minimum wage but continues to make drastic cuts to social care provision at a time when demand for help for the elderly is increasing.

Campaigners are pressuring UK Finance Minister George Osborne to pump more money into social care, when he announces his government spending review on November 25.

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