Care sector must improve pay and conditions to attract young workers

By Rhiannon Sims, Policy and Research Advisor for Oxfam Scotland

For young people embarking on their career, their first experience of the job market is crucial because it often determines their future expectations of working life.

These expectations will define where they build their careers, the sectors they choose to work in and, importantly, their future incomes and working conditions.

As part of Oxfam’s research into what decent work means for people in Scotland, we partnered with the University of the West of Scotland to ask teenage school children what they thought life in the labour market would be like.

Nearly all those we asked thought their future job would be ‘valued by society’, ‘socially worthwhile’ and would pay them ‘enough to live on’. Only 12 percent believed they would be signed up to a zero-hours contract.

Unfortunately, these perceptions are often at odds with the reality of the current labour market.

More than half of Scottish workers aged between 18 and 24 earn less than the living wage compared to under 20 percent of workers aged 25 and older.

Across the UK, younger workers are also twice as likely to be employed on zero-hours contracts than older colleagues.

Poor working conditions young workers face like low pay and insecure contracts, are the main drivers of in-work poverty. More than half of the working-age population in poverty in Scotland are in a household where at least one person is in work.

Of course, instead of reducing young people’s expectations, we should ensure the reality of the labour market matches them.

This week, Citizens Advice Scotland launched its new campaign, ‘Do the Rights Thing: Make Work Fair for Young People’, drawing attention to the difficulties faced by young people in work, including low wages, unstable work and a lack of confidence in their rights.

It is not just a lack of stable employment that young people must contend with.

At the beginning of their career, their choices may also be shaped by gender stereotypes which influence perceptions of ‘suitable’ work for men and women.

Over two-fifths of Scottish workers are in sectors with high levels of gender segregation like health and social care, with a workforce that is 85 percent female.

Because it is associated with work done for free in the home, mainly by women, paid care roles can be undervalued, both in pay and working conditions.

This is despite the work being both highly demanding and requiring increasingly higher levels of skill due to the growing frailty of those needing cared for and the enhanced focus on service quality.

Care has been designated a low pay sector by the UK’s Low Pay Commission, with average earnings in Scotland estimated to be £18,400, compared to the Scottish median of almost £30,000.

Yet, despite the low wages, the sector is worth £3.92 billion, more than agriculture, forestry and fishing, and is a vital part of ensuring our economy – and our society – continues to function.

With an ageing Scottish population and a high number of EU citizens among the workforce, the industry needs to attract more workers.

The best way to do this is to improve conditions so that more young people see it as an attractive option.

It can be challenging to be a young worker when wages do not correspond with the cost of living, insecure contracts make it difficult to plan ahead, and stereotypes make you feel that there are jobs you cannot pursue because of your gender.

Government, employers, political parties, trade unions and industry bodies have an important role to play in ensuring workers, especially those taking their first steps in their career, have access to decent work.

But, as a society, we need to think about how we value different kinds of work, and what this means for public spending, pay and working conditions.

Without the proper investment and commitment to improving working conditions, the care sector will be unable to recruit the best people and guarantee a workforce that can deliver high-quality care to all those who need it.

To find out more about the Do the Rights Thing campaign visit:

This opinion piece was first published in The Scotsman on Thursday 7 November 2019.