The forgotten charity workers on strike to survive

The forgotten charity workers on strike to survive
Vital support — As demand for services rises, low pay and poor conditions are pushing third sector workers into the arms of other charities. Many are looking for work elsewhere, while those who remain are worried about the future.

It’s 2.30pm on a Wednesday and Claire*, who started work at 8.30am, still hasn’t had lunch. This is far from unusual. As a community support worker for Hestia Hounslow LIFE, a referral service for adults in London, Claire, who asked to remain anonymous, is very busy. She starts her day travelling to a client’s house to help them with a benefits phone call, which could take more than two hours depending on their needs. She then gets on the bus to her next client’s house. They’re partially sighted, and Claire needs to help them to read through their letters. Appointments usually last no more than an hour, but if anything crops up, Claire could be there for two to three hours. It’s 3pm now, and she still has one more client to see – this one lasts an hour and a half, because the client is struggling with their mental health and wants to talk to someone about their day.

On days like this, Claire might spend three hours or more on public transport alone. She then needs to call her other clients to check in on them and book in home visits and fill out hours’ worth of paperwork. While every day is different, Claire has to see all of her 20 clients at least once a week, on top of filling out forms and making remote phone calls. Sometimes, she finds herself working up until 8pm, completing paperwork and calling clients from the bath. 

“I’m just feeling really tired and drained,” Claire, a community support worker for Hestia Hounslow LIFE, a referral service for adults in London, tells Huck. “Sometimes I have sleepless nights thinking about the clients. Occasionally I wonder whether I’ve done enough.” Claire, along with 11 of her colleagues unionised with Unite, staged a week-long strike in January following two days of walkouts last year. 

It was the first strike in the charity’s 50-year history. Staff are calling for a cost of living pay increase and, importantly, a solution to the branch’s staffing crisis. “We’re overworking, we have extreme case loads and there’s no real wellbeing for the staff,” says Claire. At the height of the pandemic, workers were dealing with 40 clients at a time. Now, that has – in theory – been reduced to 20, although some workers are still dealing with more than this. Other branches, workers say, are dealing with a caseload of six to 10 clients per person. Depending on the client’s needs, workers will help with benefit payments, online shopping, making and taking clients to appointments, liaising with other multi agencies and completing lots of paperwork.

With no payment for overtime, staff are forced to either struggle to attend to each of their clients in their working hours or, as often is the case, work for free. On top of that, workers are finding themselves offering emotional support, something they aren’t required – or adequately trained – to do. 

“We were told we weren’t an emotional service and that we were just there for the practical stuff,” Stacy, another Hestia worker tells Huck. “[But] at the moment, due to the pandemic, we have a lot of mental health clients come in, but we haven’t got the time to meet everyone’s needs,” she says. For Claire, the unexpected emotional support role she often finds herself in is “exhausting.” Since the strike action began, Hestia has booked in some emotional support training but, as Stacy notes, this takes up the time they need to work on their caseloads, compounding the problem.

The Hestia strike is only one in a wave of third sector organisation that has taken place since the cost of living crisis escalated last year. Members of the United Voices of the World union (UVW) working at ASIRT, a charity offering support to asylum seekers in Birmingham, also went on strike in December in an attempt to stop trustees from closing the organisation down. In October, UVW members at domestic abuse charity Solace Women’s Aid won a court case which saw counsellors at the charity defined as employees with rights, not self-employed gig-economy workers. They’re now calling for backdated holiday pay. Workers at the housing and homelessness charity Shelter also walked out last year over a three percent pay offer. 

It’s no secret that those working in the third sector earn less than those in the public and private sectors. In fact, research last year found that charity workers are paid, on average, seven percent less per hour than other sectors. Meanwhile, 14.1 percent of charity workers are paid less than the real living wage. While Callum*, a case worker at Shelter, admits that “no one goes into charity to make a quick buck,” it’s clear that low pay is a real problem within the third sector. 

Callum pursued a job in the third sector because he wanted to actively get involved in changing housing rights in the UK. “It’s a really attractive idea to spend your day trying to help fix things, as opposed to just moaning about it on the weekend,” he tells Huck. He spends a lot of his time advocating for people, liaising with councils, landlords and other agencies to make sure the people aren’t getting exploited – and it’s fulfilling, “when it goes right.” 

It can also be frustrating: “You feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle all the time,” he says. “We’re never short of people being referred, [whether that’s because of] dodgy landlords or local authorities not having the capabilities to do what they need to do. It does feel like two steps forward one step back a lot of the time.” Of course, the work can sometimes take a toll on Callum’s mental health. “You hear about some really horrible situations from the people you work with,” he says. “For example, we get a lot of people who are fleeing the war in Ukraine and we’re trying to help find them somewhere to live, and you know that it’s an extremely stressful situation for them, and you kind of feel that stress, too.” Thankfully, he says, mental health support at Shelter is good.

Good pastoral support however, does not pay the bills. When inflation hit 10 percent last year and energy costs soared, workers at the charity began to struggle. A three percent pay increase (which equates to a real terms pay cut of seven percent) was rejected as 600 staff – all members of Unite the Union – voted to go on strike.  

“[The pay offer] was roundly rejected because it just wasn’t enough,” says Callum, who rents privately with his partner and their three-month old child. While his situation wasn’t as extreme as some of his colleagues, he says he was still struggling to make ends meet. “There were colleagues of mine who went to food banks. We had referrals to our service from within our own organisation, where people weren’t able to make ends meet who were losing their properties because they couldn’t pay the rent. I think the job of a charity is to serve their workers, not to push them into the arms of other charities.”

Hestia workers are also struggling financially. Not only are Hestia failing to negotiate with Unite over a cost of living pay increase, completing the paperwork for travel expenses “takes hours” and workers simply don’t have time to do it on top of their caseloads, causing them to lose out on money. “It all adds up,” says Stacy. “The salary isn’t adequate, too– I’m barely breaking even each month.” However, she says, when staff raised their concerns with management, they were simply sent a digital ‘cost of living toolkit’ via email which advised workers on how to get a referral for food bank services. Thankfully, Claire and Stacy haven’t had to rely on food banks themselves, but Stacy says, “every single one of us is struggling with bills,” and the suggestion has left staff feeling less than appreciated. “I don’t feel like the feelings of staff have been actually taken into account when they’ve suggested these things to us,” she adds. All of this is having an impact on workers’ mental health. “I’m becoming all frustrated at home,” says Claire. “I talk about work constantly and argue with my partner a lot. It’s really tiresome.”

Low pay and poor conditions are causing valuable workers to leave not just their charities but the sector in general. Claire is actively looking for other jobs away from the third sector. “It’s just not worth it,” she says. “We’re treated like second class citizens.” Stacy feels the same way. “I love my job and am really passionate, but if things carry on like this I will be looking for another job, and I wouldn’t work for another charity.” This is precisely why Callum decided to strike. “I was worried about the future of the helpline that I work on, because people were going to leave,” he says. “I wanted to help secure the helpline first and foremost, and then be able to comfortably say to myself that, yes, I can continue to do this job and fulfil a necessary service and still be solvent.”

Shelter workers were able to secure a seven percent pay increase along with a one-off payment of £1,250. Meanwhile, Hestia workers are still fighting. In an era when the demand for charities is constantly rising, it’s important that the workers behind these vital services aren’t, as Callum puts, “forgotten”. 

Tim Gutteridge, Director of Finance and Strategy Enablement at Shelter, told Huck: “We are pleased that, after reaching an agreement with the union, members of the union have voted to accept Shelter’s pay offer, and the dispute has been resolved. 

“Our ambition has always been the same: to support our colleagues as best we can through these challenging economic times, while being able to deliver our frontline services and campaigning work. What unites everyone at Shelter is our shared passion and steadfast commitment to defending the right to a safe home.”

A Hestia spokesperson said: “As a charity, we value our dedicated and passionate staff without whom we would not be able to deliver life-changing services across the capital. We have been working closely with staff at Hounslow LIFE and have already introduced new measures to reduce their workloads. We have had positive feedback from them on the steps we have taken.

“In recent weeks, a small number of staff at our Hounslow service went out on strike, but we have been able to minimise any disruption for our service users. We will also continue to work alongside our staff to ensure we are doing everything possible to make this vital service as successful as it can be.   

“We cannot deliver support to those who need us without our talented and dedicated staff. To strengthen our engagement with employees, we have formally recognised UNISON for collective bargaining rights, and we will continue to work with them alongside our existing Employee Forum to create the best working environment possible for Hestia employees.” 

Charity work shouldn’t be seen as less worthy of pay than other work – if anything, it should be seen as more worthy. Low pay and poor conditions don’t just impact staff negatively, but also every vulnerable person who relies on the third sector. Callum and his colleague’s fight for better pay showed that solidarity can save vital services, and that fight is only getting stronger.

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