Northern Ireland’s coronavirus heroes forced to choose to ‘eat or heat’ by cost-of-living crisis and low pay, warns trade union

Health workers hailed as heroes during the pandemic are now facing the stark choice of “heating their homes or putting food on the table” due to the cost-of-living crisis.

By Niall Deeney
Friday, 18th March 2022, 5:49 am

That is the warning from the largest trade union in the Northern Ireland health service, Unison, who are calling for a strategy to be put in place to tackle low pay in certain health sectors.

Unison official John Patrick Clayton, in an interview with the News Letter, warned that the public has become “increasingly aware” of “just how poorly paid” care workers and those in similar roles are despite the “huge contribution” made during the pandemic.

“I think people understand how serious this cost-of-living crisis is because they’re experiencing it every day,” he said.

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Residents of Clonduff in east Belfast clap for NHS heroes during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020

“They’re experiencing it every time they go to fill their car up, every time they have to pay their gas bill, when they get a fill of oil or when they go to do their weekly shop.

“Health and social care workers are experiencing it in exactly the same ways.”

The Unison policy officer continued: “It is really unacceptable in our society that we would find ourselves in a position where people who are providing a huge contribution, providing services for our most vulnerable, keeping the public safe, caring for our older people, our sick people, would find themselves having to make a choice whether to heat their homes or put food on the table.

“That is something that has to be dealt with. That might shock people to think that people who do such important work that should be valued by society would find themselves in that position. But that is the reality.

Health workers in personal protective equipment in a care home during the coronavirus pandemic

“It is partly due to the cost-of-living crisis, which is a huge factor, but we also have to recognise there have been considerable issues around pay for a long time. As a society, and in particular our political leaders and our government, need to recognise that and we need to see a strategy being put in place to deal with that urgently.”

He said the pressures were being felt more acutely by those who use their own vehicles to provide care in the community, saying: “Some are experiencing very serious problems because of the cost-of-living crisis, particularly those workers who use their vehicles to deliver care.

“Care workers in the community, home care workers, people who have to travel big distances and do a lot of miles for their work.

“They’re experiencing the cost-of-living crisis really acutely, and the reality is that the mileage their employers give them is simply being outstripped by the cost of fuel.

“We have been calling for the employers, across the trusts and the Department of Health, to do something about that urgently, because it is causing serious problems for our members.

“They are out of pocket delivering care to the most vulnerable, and these are people who are low paid already. That’s really unfair and needs to be resolved urgently.”

He added: “But for all health and social care workers there is a major issue in relation to pay. The public showed their support for health and social care workers during the pandemic.

“I think the public know the sacrifices health and social care workers have made. They have gone through really difficult and traumatic experiences to keep the public safe. They are exhausted. They are working in services where there were already major issues with insufficient staff numbers.

“They have found themselves in positions where they don’t feel sufficiently valued for what they do. Many of them are questioning their future.”

On care workers specifically, Mr Clayton said: “For our members who are care workers in Northern Ireland, we have seen the minister put in place a fair work forum and that’s something that we have urged him to do.

“I think people really understand the huge contribution that people who work in care homes have made and people who work in the community have made over this period of the pandemic.

“I think people are also increasingly aware just how poorly paid those workers are.

“They have been – and I use this term because it was used in the official review that was carried out into the care system here several years ago – they have been exploited by the system.

“We want to see that fair work forum deliver for those workers. That has got to be a real priority.”