I am lucky; I haven’t worked a sleep shift for years. If anyone hasn’t realised yet, sleep shifts do not involve a lot of actual sleep. In my old job in a dementia unit, I would work a late shift from 3pm until 10pm; at 6am I would start getting residents washed and dressed, and between 10pm and 6am I was nominally ‘asleep’ and therefore not getting paid. Even if I was able to sleep, this would still be a breach of Working Time Regulations (something that most care workers opt out of when we sign our contracts).
And there was no expectation that we would actually sleep between these hours. There was one other worker in the building at night, and we had residents who needed repositioning by two carers every two hours throughout the shift. Management were fully aware that sleep shift workers didn’t actually sleep more than the odd nap. I would do this shift pattern (work from three, ‘sleep’ from ten, work again from six) every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, adding up to a 51 hour working weekend.
Care work is not easy work. It’s not something you can do with half your mind on the job. Like the army, or Hollywood, it consumes your whole life. You become a carer first and everything else (a spouse, a parent, a teenager, or whatever else you might be) second. People died between ten and six and I was the last person they saw. I would sit down on my heels next to the bed, trying to find the words to comfort the client and planning what I was going to say when I called their family. Meanwhile, part of me was still asleep, not sure if I was dreaming, and part of me was clock-watching and trying to count how much sleep I was going to get before I had to do it all again the next day. I was like a doctor off the TV, except I earned £7.20 an hour. I was nineteen years old.
Care work is paid poorly because it is traditionally done by women. Society generally treats care workers like angels, but when we try to assert our humanity by asking for things like sleep and wages, people get squeamish. I suspect there are many people out there who do not think we should get paid at all; that people see care as part of the ‘natural’ gender roles of women under patriarchy. Carers clean, feed, raise and nurture and counsel at home. Then they go to work and do it all again, and many people don’t see the difference. The denial of wages to care workers is just another step away from the recognition that care work is work, and another economic shackle to keep people of one gender financially dependent on another.
And of course, the fact that care work is under-valued is a direct consequence of the devaluing of disabled people under capitalism. To the capitalist class, the consumers of care services are not a lucrative demographic to cater for, and social care must seem like a bad investment. If disabled people had more spending power then carers would be paid more. This is an inescapable problem in an economic system that can’t distinguish between profit and worth. We know that the crisis in care workers’ wages is a consequence of capitalism. We know that we need a better world; a world where we can give our care to those who need it, not just to those who can pay. But back when I was nineteen, I was using payday lenders to make rent. Pay us today, and we can build socialism tomorrow.
These are revolutionary demands. First, we want our money back, and then we want our lives back. This will not stop with the minimum wage and it certainly will not stop with Mencap, but we need to fight from where we are, and if we don’t stand up now we might never do so.
Sleep shifts are work. Care work is work.
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