A group of foster care workers have voted to form the first ever trade union for the profession. The carers are concerned about their lack of employment rights, not being listened to when a child is removed from their care and rates of pay.
Their vote at a meeting in Parliament on Monday was supported by shadow chancellor John McDonnell. The Department for Education said it was launching a fundamental review of fostering across the country.
Foster carers can be employed by private agencies but the majority are given work by local authorities. There are around 55,000 fostering households in the UK which care for some 64,000 children.
Foster carers are paid an “allowance” to cover the cost of the child in their care and a “fee” based on their skill level and time. Weekly sums for an individual child can range from £150 to £500, depending on factors such as how demanding the child is.
However, some foster carers are deeply unhappy about the way they are treated and concerned about their legal status as they are not classed as employees or workers, because they are not engaged under a contract of employment. This means that they are not entitled to any of the rights enjoyed by employees or workers such as sick pay, holiday pay, or the national minimum wage.
Another concern at the meeting was the right to due process. Many foster care workers have complained that children can be removed from their care without their input or consultation. They claim there is little redress for them in cases of unfair and inappropriate removals.
They are sometimes excluded from the discussion about removal of the child, or removal is based on accusations against the foster carer which he or she is not allowed to defend.The complaint about lack of due process also applies to decisions of local authorities to “de-register” foster care workers, meaning that they will no longer receive any placements from that local authority.
The Department for Education points out that national minimum standards make clear that investigations into allegations or suspicions of harm should be handled fairly, quickly, and consistently in a way that protects the child, and supports the person who is subject to the allegation.
In addition, foster carers whose approval is terminated or terms of approval are amended have the right to a review by the independent review mechanism
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who attended the meeting to support unionising, said: “Foster caring is an essential role in our society, and these foster carers carry a burden for the rest of our community so they should be properly recognised. They have never really been recognised and had legal rights. They should have security of their employment and be properly paid as well, and they should have the support that they need.”
The meeting was organised by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, a small trade union which has previously unionised low paid migrant workers in London. Once the discussion was over the union asked the foster carers to vote. Fifty-six hands shot into the air and a moment of history was made.
Individual foster carers have joined unions in the past, but no group has ever voted to form its own. Although this may be a very small number, Dr Jason Moyer-Lee, the general secretary of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, believes the vote will mark a real change.
He said: “People who work in foster care, alongside social workers, local authority employees, and others, together form part of a professional network responsible for looking after some of society’s most vulnerable individuals. Foster care work is important, demanding, and all too often highly exploitative. Like social workers and others who work in care, foster care workers should be remunerated properly, treated fairly, and have recourse to due process. By voting to unionise this is precisely what they aim to achieve.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We really appreciate the work foster carers do, as we know it is a very rewarding, but at times challenging, experience.
“Foster carers receive financial support to cover the full cost of caring for a child and we’re launching a fundamental review of fostering across the country, which will look at the issues affecting foster carers, including accountability and complaints.”