A group of homecare workers are to take the London Borough of Haringey and care services provider Sevacare to court amid claims they are paid well below the minimum wage.
According to union Unison, the 17 claimants are employed on zero-hours contracts and care for elderly and disabled residents across the borough.
Sevacare was, until July this year, one of the companies commissioned by Haringey to deliver care.
Unison said the case against the council and Sevacare – and a number of care companies who took over the contract from Sevacare – was “chiefly over the failure to pay staff a legal wage, as time spent travelling between people’s houses was unpaid”.
The union said this could mean that on a typical day the claimants might be working away from home for as many as 14 hours, but could receive payment for only half of them.
Unison said workers earned in some cases £3.85 an hour. For live-in workers, this could fall to just £3.27 an hour.
The workers’ zero-hours status meant most had previously been too scared to complain about their treatment, amid fears that they could have their hours reduced or be given no work at all, argued the union.
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Ministers must get tougher with enforcing the law so firms aren’t able to cheat their staff. More money must be put into care so that councils are not forced to tender contracts at a price they know decent care cannot be delivered…..
“Unfortunately this sorry state of affairs is not unique to Haringey. Up and down the UK, the experience of other home care workers is depressingly similar.”
The council revealed that it paid Sevacare at rates of: £12.83 p.h. where a full care hour was commissioned; the equivalent of £15.50 p.h. where a half hour of care was commissioned; and the equivalent of £13.71 p.h. where three quarters of an hour of care was commissioned.
Cllr Jason Arthur, Cabinet Member for Finance and Health at Sevacare, said: "It is shocking and unacceptable to hear that Sevacare is not paying its carers minimum wage.
"Just to be clear, Haringey Council paid Sevacare enough money through contract fees to ensure that all live-in carers could receive not only national minimum wage but national living wage for the 24-hour care they provide.
"We had already terminated our relationship with Sevacare after reporting our concerns about the quality of care provided to the CQC. We will now be following this up with the CQC given the implication that this practice is not confined to Haringey, but is nationwide.”
Cllr Arthur added: “Carers do a fantastic job and it is vital that they are paid sufficiently to recognise the vital work that they do. While we have robust whistle-blowing policies in place to ensure carers can report any concerns about pay to us, we will be following this up with an audit of all care providers in Haringey to ensure that carers are being paid to the levels that our contract payments allow."
Sevacare, which has contracts with a range of local authorities, told the BBC that it pays above the minimum wage.
The company said the live-in workers' hours were covered by a "daily average agreement", under which they were paid for 10 hours and received £550 for a seven-day week. This equated to £7.85 an hour, it argued.
The provider added: "Sevacare submits that it pays, and had paid to these staff, an average hourly rate that is at least the national minimum wage over any pay reference period.”