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Page last updated at 22:57 GMT, Sunday, 2 October 2011 23:57 UK
Thousands of care workers paid under legal limit

Anonymous elderly patient - file pic
Some 10% of care workers earn less than the statutory minimum

As the new levels for the national minimum wage are introduced, Panorama discovers that many British workers are still being paid much less than the law states and finds the problem particularly acute in the care work sector.

"I work all these hours and people just won't pay me," said Susan.

Susan (not her real name) is one of more than two million people employed in the care industry in the UK.

She wanted to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job.

It is tough work, both physically and mentally, delivering care services such as bathing, cooking and lifting in the home for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is also poorly paid.

Susan is the sort of worker that the national minimum wage was introduced to protect in April 1999.

But research by academics at King's College London seen by BBC Panorama suggests that somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 care workers over the age of 21 may be earning less than the statutory minimum, now £6.08 an hour for adults.

Earning less

The figure is at least five times higher than government figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which showed that 27,000 workers in the social care sector over the age of 16 were earning less than the minimum wage.

The research, conducted by Dr Shereen Hussein, a social care workforce expert at the university suggests that about 9% of the care work force in England is paid under the national minimum wage.

"If we assume the same thing happens across the UK as a whole, you are talking about 150,000 to 200,000 care workers.

"And even those who are paid just above minimum wage, it is very near the minimum wage," Dr Hussein estimated.

Panorama has been investigating how many employers in the UK exploit loopholes or bend the rules to avoid paying their workers the minimum and discovered abuse is particularly rife in the care work sector.

Low pay demonstration - file pic
Campaigners have demanded the minimum wage rise for several years

Susan said stretching the hours worked was common practice. She is paid £6.50 an hour but is not paid for her travelling time between patient visits.

When her travel time is factored in her pay equates to about £4.25 an hour.

In a previous job, she cared 22 hours a day for a patient with Alzheimer's disease.

Her hourly rate was £6.16 but she was not paid for the 10-hour sleepover part of the shift - even though she was often disturbed by the patient during the night - leaving her with an average hourly rate of £3.36 - well below minimum wage and making life a struggle.

"It is just so difficult, you have to count each penny. It is a matter of having a bag of potatoes that will last me a week for supper, or it is baked beans on toast.

"I wouldn't mind having meat once in a while but I can't afford it," the care worker said.

Her anger is directed squarely at policy makers in government.

"I think those people in parliament need to rethink the whole idea.

"It is fine and dandy for them to be sitting on their rear ends, but they need to look at the real facts and the real way life is for carers in this country," Susan said.

'Get rid'

With 2.5 million people out of work and jobs at a premium, some believe that the problems faced by low-paid workers are actually a symptom of the minimum wage.

"If you are employing people for a job that has a productivity of five pounds an hour for your business, it genuinely is not worth paying somebody six pounds and eight pence an hour.

"Employers are going to try and find ways round the system," said Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

"My idea would be to get rid of it.

"Or at least have different rates in different regions of the country and certainly don't keep putting it up. This is basically pricing people out of the labour market and onto welfare," Mr Littlewood said.

Wage packet

Shelley Jofre presents Panorama: All Work and Low Pay

BBC One, Monday, 3 October at 20:00 BST

This argument has been rejected by all the mainstream political parties and the unions.

"The evidence is very clear, there has simply not been a reduction in jobs, as a result of the minimum wage.

"The problem is with the lack in demand which is not going to be sorted by lowering the minimum wage," said Nicola Smith of the TUC.

"Poorer wages for the lowest paid workers could result in even less money in people's pockets, less spending in the economy and fewer jobs being created," Mrs Smith continued.

Though there is general agreement that minimum wage underpayment is widespread, the difficulties of investigation and proof mean there have only been seven criminal prosecutions over the national minimum wage in more than a decade.

"There is no doubt there is a minority of unscrupulous employers who are keen to take advantage of the fact the minimum wage is rarely enforced through criminal sanctions," Simon Cheetham, an employment barrister, said.

"I would have thought we are in an economic climate where these sort of abuses are likely to occur more frequently."

Panorama: All Work and Low Pay, BBC One, Monday, 3 October at 20:30 BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

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