UNISON condemns gagging order on low-paid homecare staff

UNISON has condemned a range of draconian measures imposed on low-paid homecare workers by Apex Care, which include a gagging order, refusals to provide copies of employee handbooks and insisting it has the right to search individuals and their possessions.

The union, which represents 850,000 local government workers, launched a high profile campaign against the harsh practices of Apex Care in December. It accused the company of being a “Scrooge employer” for flouting National Minimum Wage laws and imposing unreasonable and punitive charges and sanctions on its hard working female staff.

UNISON is calling on the Hampshire-based company to immediately withdraw a clause in its hurriedly put together media communications policy, which states that staff are not permitted to make comments about the organisation to the press without company authorisation. Staff found to have breached the policy face disciplinary action and possible dismissal.

The company also insists that, despite employing workers on zero hour contracts, staff must have management permission to do other work including voluntary and charitable work. It also reserves the right to search individuals, their possessions and private vehicles.

Apex has refused to provide staff with a copy of their employee handbook, referred to in the employee’s contract. Instead, staff may book an appointment to view the handbook in an office.

Heather Wakefield, UNISON Head of Local Government, said:

“If Apex has nothing to hide, why has it imposed a gagging order on staff and threatened to dismiss workers who speak out when the company is breaking the law? Staff are being bullied and harassed out of employment and compliance with the National Minimum Wage is still a major issue.

“Apex is starving our members of work, in some cases reducing weekly hours from 40 to four and withdrawing vehicles which workers must have to travel between clients.

“It is adding insult to injury by plunging its workforce into a state of constant fear of losing their jobs or receiving no hours. These workers care for the most vulnerable people in our communities, and it is only right that they are valued and paid fairly for the vital work that they do.”

Following the union’s campaign, Hampshire County Council suspended new work for Apex Care and the matter is being investigated by HMRC. However, the union is urging the council not to wash its hands of a contract that is clearly failing.

Heather Wakefield went on to say:

“Paying staff below the National Minimum Wage is illegal and this is a problem plaguing the homecare sector across the UK.

“Councils have a moral responsibility to ensure that the contracts they use to deliver services to the community are not merely contracts of convenience. When private companies are failing in their duty, councils must acknowledge that the buck stops with them and put measures in place to ensure that employers abide by the law.”

Last year, UNISON wrote to all local authorities in the UK asking them to sign up to the union’s Ethical Care Charter. The Charter commits councils to buying homecare only from providers who give workers enough time, training and a living wage, so they can provide better quality care for thousands of people who rely on the service.

UNISON’s campaign has forced Apex into some concessions, with workers no longer paid ‘by the minute’, a cynical tactic to drive down pay. The company has also lifted its substantive rate of pay from £6.50 to £7 an hour, and claims to be paying staff for travel time. However, the union has seen no evidence of this, with Apex refusing to provide employees with itemised pay slips to prove that it is now paying above the National Minimum Wage. Every employee is legally entitled to an itemised breakdown of how they are paid.

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