This weekend, workers at SAGE care home in Golders Green, north London are striking. Their demands – which if met, could set a historic precedent in the private care industry – include £12 an hour, parity with NHS sick pay, better annual leave provision and recognition for their union, United Voices of the World. Andrene, who’s been a carer at SAGE for almost two decades, shared her experience with Novara Media reporter Rivkah Brown, and explained why it’s led her to strike.
I started working at SAGE 17 years ago. I was in Colindale qualifying as a carer, and had to choose between two homes for my practical training; I chose SAGE. I spent a week there and at the end of it, my manager insisted I join the team. She was very impressed with me, but I’m not sure why: I was 18, and so nervous. When I was supposed to be handing over to the next shift, I’d hide in the kitchen. I was intimidated by the older ladies working at the home, except this one woman from Russia – I’ll never forget her name, Irina – who took me under her wing. From then on, that was it. Now, my colleagues and residents feel like family.
Every day is a new challenge at SAGE. My residents motivate me to keep going. Sometimes it’s a cheeky thing they’ve said that keeps you laughing all the way home; other times it’s a squeeze of the hand to show you that they appreciate you. When I put a smile on someone’s face, it’s so rewarding. But being a carer can be hard, really hard. Sometimes you want to leave, but you don’t want to let the residents down.
During the pandemic, we worked – even some of us with vulnerable loved ones. My youngest child, who’s nearly two, was born very prematurely, and has a lung condition. The government’s advice, and my husband’s, was that I stay home. But I knew that my colleagues looked to me for strength, that my residents relied on me. It was a tough decision, but I went in and I worked.
Working during the pandemic was – mentally, emotionally, physically – the hardest thing I’ve ever done except childbirth. The worst part was that residents’ families couldn’t be there for their final moments; we lost 21 residents. At times, I couldn’t even tell my family what was happening, because I didn’t want to scare them.
So we worked, worked, worked, and at the end of the day, what did we get from management? A pizza day. Before, we were the sort of people who would accept whatever SAGE gave us; we kept our mouths shut and went with it. But the pandemic triggered something inside of us. It made us realise that as carers, we are essential workers, and we deserve better. So we said no, pizza wasn’t enough. A colleague of ours was going through some issues at work and told us that UVW [United Voices of the World] was a good union and that we should join.
Striking is the last thing the workers want to do, but after the trustees sabotaged negotiations they were left with no choice but to walk off the job. The first strikes will be on the 15th of January to the 17th of January and will be the first of many! https://t.co/XdhSfqAdRG
UVW opened our eyes. They showed us we’ve got a voice, that there’s right and there’s wrong. “You know what,” we said, “we work hard. We deserve better.” With UVW’s help, we agreed our demands: £12 an hour, weekend enhancement and better sick pay.
We called a meeting with management and delivered our demands to them. They said: “Okay, we have to go away and think about it.” But when they came back, they said there was nothing they could do.
We kept writing to them, but were ignored. Finally, we agreed a date in December to meet. But when we asked whether staff could take time off to represent us at the meeting, management said no, so we had to cancel. We couldn’t put the residents at risk; we always put them first with any decision we make.
I never thought that after working for SAGE for 17 years – some of my colleagues have been here even longer – they would treat us in such a way. I feel very disappointed.
We’ve been writing to management since the cancelled meeting and heard nothing. That’s why we’re pushing ahead with the strike: if they’re not going to listen to us, maybe a strike is the only way to get them around the table.
None of us has done anything like this before, and at first, we were nervous. I must’ve phoned Molly [a UVW organiser] about six or seven times asking: “Am I doing the right thing?” I felt scared, because when you speak up in SAGE, you’re perceived as a bad apple. That said, the Jewish community [SAGE is a Jewish care home] is behind us – families have sent us their support for and solidarity with the strike.
🚨STRIKE ALERT! In 2 days time the care workers and cleaners at Sage Nursing Home will go on strike for the first time in a historic battle which could very well change the nature of social care in the UK forever! Here is how *you* can support these workers: pic.twitter.com/6Hh19MYlfg
I’m doing this for my colleagues: when I leave, I want to leave a better environment for the carers that come after me. I’m also doing it for the residents: if your staff are happy, your residents get the best care. This isn’t just about SAGE, though. Today I was speaking with one of my colleagues, Billy. He said to me: “What we’re doing is big. It’s not only SAGE we’re changing, but the entire care industry.”
I’m feeling positive about the strike, but I’m also hoping for change. I’m holding on to the possibility that we’ll receive an email from management saying they’re willing to sit and talk, and we can call off the strike. But if not, I’m ready. For so long, carers have been overlooked, underpaid, undervalued. The fight continues until change happens.
To support the strike this weekend, donate to the SAGE workers’ strike fund, write to the care home’s trustees, or join tonight’s rally.