Jewish care home workers are striking. Will the community stand with them?

At Sage in Golders Green, staff are demanding fair wages and working conditions. British Jews could view this as a threat to our elders – or as fundamentally in our interests.

Jewish care home workers are striking. Will the community stand with them?
A group of workers at Sage. Credit: United Voices of the World

Bile, a French-born carer who has worked at a private Jewish nursing home in Golders Green for eleven years, has a straightforward way of explaining his dispute with management: “We deserve to live a good life.”

Since June, a group of the 60 care, domestic and maintenance staff at the Sidney and Ruza Last Foundation at the Yehoshua Freshwater Centre – better known as Service to the Aged, or Sage – have been demanding £12 per hour, parity with NHS sick pay and annual leave, and recognition for their union, United Voices of the World (UVW). With negotiations having reached a deadlock, the group is due to strike in January.

Sage’s staff are paid between £8.72 and £9.60 per hour – well below the London living wage of £10.75. Annual leave is at the statutory minimum. Until recently, their sick pay was limited to the statutory £95.85 per week, although under pressure from staff in the summer, management committed to three weeks sick pay at 50% pay. This still leaves the workers short-changed compared to NHS staff, who are entitled to one month’s full pay and two months’ half pay if they get sick during their first year of service (the rate of both pay and length of pay increases with time), and who get eight public holidays alongside the statutory 28 days of annual leave.

In a statement to Vashti, Sage’s trustees – among them Benzion Freshwater, a property developer who owns chunks of Oxford Street and is worth £2bn – explained their reasons for not meeting the workers’ “unrealistic” demands. “Sage is a small registered charity which is overseen by volunteer trustees who are recruited to provide their skill and acumen (not as a bank facility). … Given its charitable objectives it is disappointing that United Voices of the World has chosen to focus a campaign against a small Jewish charitable home and not the many other commercial care homes who pay similar rates.” The management cited “severe operational challenges” that had accompanied the pandemic, leading to “the tragic loss of a third of its residents (and hence also a substantial loss of income)”. The trustees’ full statement is appended to this report.

Relationships between staff and management were relatively cordial until the pandemic. Last year’s Care Quality Commission report on the home describes staff feeling supported, and on our Zoom call, Bile mentions that until June this year, staff members were spread across disparate unions, because organising together had never seemed necessary. The workers’ last meeting with the board was in 2016.

But Sage, like care homes across the country, was hit badly by the pandemic; by November, it had lost a third of its residents. Nor were residents the only ones affected. With minimal sick pay, Andrene, a 35-year-old carer who’s worked at Sage since she was 18, had little choice but to work through the first wave despite her one-year-old son’s lung condition. “I’ve got bills to pay,” she tells me over Zoom. In April, she contracted the virus. 

It was this struggle with Covid that pushed Sage’s staff to act. Both Bile and Andrene cite the weekly “clap for carers” that took place throughout the first lockdown, the performative display of national gratitude served alongside their below-livable wage and life-threatening working environment. They assembled a group of similarly dissatisfied workers, compiled a list of demands and submitted them to management in June.

Progress since then has been meandering. In July, the home’s management rejected a voluntary deal with the organisers. Then on 23 October, the workers voted unanimously to strike; in response, management agreed to negotiate. UVW restated the workers’ demands and gave Sage until 23 November to respond; after waiting until the very last day to do so, Sage and its workers began negotiations on Friday 4 December. Negotiations were later cancelled since, according to UVW, Sage brought nothing to the table. Plans are now being made for a January strike.

The action threatens to disrupt one of the most significant areas of Jewish communal life: eldercare. It’s partly a question of demographics: we have twice as many over-60s as the UK average, and the highest proportion of 90-95 year-olds of any religious group. It’s also a question of history. In his 2002 book Facing the Future: The Provision of Long-Term Care Facilities for Older Jewish People in the United Kingdom, Oliver Valins notes that the tradition of the provision of internal community social care stems from Cromwell’s 1656 decree that the previously expelled Jews could reenter the country as long as they didn’t become a burden to the state. Community provision became more important during the roll-back of welfare in the 70s and 80s, leading to the establishment of the Central Council for Jewish Social Services in 1972 (it was later dissolved) and Jewish Care in 1990. There’s also a scriptural basis for the high importance Jewish communities place on caring for their older members. “The Torah characterizes barbaric enemy states as those ‘who will show the old no regard’,” Valins writes.

Holly Kal-Weiss, a Jewish teacher and activist who stood as a Labour MP in Hertsmere in the 2019 election, tells me over the phone that her solidarity with the Sage workers is inextricably tied to her religion, and in fact comes down to its most basic tenet: treat others as you want to be treated. She also points me to a document published by New York’s Jewish Labor Committee in 1993, which analyses the position of Jewish texts towards labour rights, and emphasises the Talmudic support for collective bargaining.

Holly’s involvement with local activism – on refugee rights, homelessness and labour, among other things – led her to the Sage campaign, which she’s been raising awareness of at her north London synagogue. Her efforts have been met with enthusiasm, she says, suggesting that the absence of broader community engagement in the dispute is the result of ignorance, rather than ideology. “The majority of people in my community are 100% supportive of the workers,” she adds. “I don’t really think management has a justifiable position here.”

Kal-Weiss is keen to stress that her concern is equally for the home’s staff and its residents. “It’s like when you have a teacher looking after your child. That teacher should be the most important person in your life, because they have care of your kid for six hours a day. Older people are in care twenty-four hours a day. If you don’t look after the carers, you’re not really looking after those they care for.” 

The staff’s concern for the residents is evident in the way both Andrene and Bile talk about them. Keeping herself separate from her children while sick was hard, Andrene says, but returning to the home was harder. “So many of the familiar faces weren’t there,” she tells me. “They always tell you not to get attached to the residents, but how can you not when you’re looking after them for years?” 

“Working at Sage is like having a second family,” Bile adds. “You create a bond with those you’re looking after. When you see them, you see your grandfather and grandmother. Caring isn’t something you do for the money. You do it because you like it.” 

It’s this sentiment that employers in industries like care often take advantage of. Economic theorists have observed that the fact that love, rather than money, is seen as the primary motivator for care work has enabled employers to justify poor conditions.

Disrupting that expectation by striking is incredibly difficult for staff who feel morally and emotionally indebted to those they care for. Molly, a UVW organiser, emphasises the lengths to which the staff have gone to avoid striking: “They joined a union, asked to sit around the table, brought concerns forward in letters. They tried everything,” she says. “No worker wants to go on strike. No-one wants to face the worry or guilt. The people not caring for the residents are the people not caring for the employees. The employers are the ones with the power to avoid a strike.” The strike, therefore, is a bold statement, one that says quality pay for quality care is in everyone’s interest.

Jews across the Atlantic have already realised this. Since 2017, the New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) has been organising with Caring Majority, a movement that attempts to unite the interests of caregivers and those in need of care. The campaign has achieved a major expansion of funding for in-home care services, and the addition of home care to New York State’s Health Act, meaning that, should the legislation pass, some care will be government-funded and therefore more accessible.

In an email to Vashti, JFREJ and Caring Majority member Bobbie Sackman explains what she sees as the mutual interest between the two groups: “Judaism teaches us the power of interdependence across generations,” she writes. “Government investment in a caring economy infrastructure would allow communities like ours to thrive. Jewish communities should fight for greater investment in healthcare and home care, and dignified jobs for care workers, making our vision of interdependent communities a lived reality.”

JFREJ’s involvement with Caring Majority is informed by the fact that New York’s care industry is highly gendered and racialised, both of which put care workers at higher risk of exploitation. The same is true of London, where 82% of professional carers are women and 67% BAME. All but one of the Sage workers currently organising were born overseas. 

The Jewish Labor Council’s document notes that American Jews’ historic support for labour rights stems from a collective memory of mass Jewish immigration, and of the poor conditions in which those immigrants often worked (one could tell a similar history of Jewish labour in sweatshops in English cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Considering the difference Jewish solidarity could make to the Sage workers’ campaign, it’s this history which comes to mind.

Industrial action is not unheard of in care – in 2014, a group of Care UK employees struck for 90 days over proposed cuts to pay – but it’s rare. Covid, however, has cast a grim light on a £50bn industry in which poverty pay is the norm, and already pushed workers elsewhere to organise. With so much attention being paid to the plight of carers nationally, the Sage workers’ demands have the potential to set a precedent for change.

Jewish solidarity with those workers could prove key to achieving it. When Sage’s staff flyer in Golders Green this and next week, they will be joined by the campaign group Jewish Solidarity Action. It will take a much broader coalition, however, and deeper communal buy-in, to turn the tide in the workers’ favour.

“It’s been hard, but we worked,” says Bile. “People went off sick; we worked. We lost our residents; we worked. We have always been there. We never let any resident down.” It remains to be seen whether the Jewish communities cared for by Bile and his colleagues will reciprocate that loyalty. ▼

Join UVW’s ‘Care Workers: Taking the Fight into 2021’ rally on 17 December.

Sage gave the following comment:

Sage is a small registered charity which is overseen by volunteer trustees who are recruited to provide their skill and acumen (not as a bank facility). Sage runs a single care home specifically catering to the needs of the Jewish community. Sage is not operated to generate a profit and it relies upon donations: it has the stated aim to make 60% of its accommodation available at all times to persons who cannot afford to pay the full fees charged. Given its charitable objectives it is disappointing that United Voices of the World has chosen to focus a campaign against a small Jewish charitable home and not the many other commercial care homes who pay similar rates as Sage.

Sage benchmarks its rates of pay against the care home sector and believes it is in line with comparable care homes. Like many in the care sector Sage is battling with the consequences of Covid19: severe operational challenges, increased costs and the tragic loss of a third of its residents (and hence also a substantial loss of income). Against this background, the union is encouraging a series of unrealistic demands which the charity cannot afford and which could, if implemented, lead to the closure of the care home.

Francesca Newton is a freelance journalist and editor.