By Jimmy Johnstone, IWGB member taking on Glasgow City Council
This article was originally published in the Guardian
My wife and I became foster carers because we wanted to make a home for young people who needed one. We put everything into that, even risked our own lives. We tried to do right by the children in a system that exploited us and neglected them with terrifying consequences. When we discovered that we had no rights and no redress, we knew we had to change the law.
Foster care workers need to be recognised as employees or workers not just because with recognition comes the rights every worker deserves, but because without them we are vulnerable to exploitation and the children in our care are vulnerable to neglect.
Today my wife and I return to court to defend the victory against Glasgow city council that we won fair and square in 2017. An employment tribunal granted us rights such as sick pay, holiday pay, a guaranteed minimum wage and, crucially, protections for whistleblowers. These are the rights that foster care workers have been systematically denied. This was a first in the UK.
Our battle began when a young person in our care who had extreme mental distress became a danger not only to themselves, but also to us. We still wanted to care for and protect the child but urgently needed specialist support. We were working under a project specifically intended to provide that – but when we asked for help, there was none to be found.
It was a deeply traumatic and dangerous situation that brought us to our knees. I resorted to citing health and safety standards – only to be told by the council that since we were not employees, it had no duty of care towards our safety. We were in fear of our lives and the child’s. We begged for help and were met with a staggering level of disregard.
We had no choice but to whistleblow: we made a report to the Scottish Fire Service and an independent social worker, who raised the alarm on our behalf. Glasgow city council was furious. The child was taken away from us. We were victimised, bullied and pushed out of the project.
The union I was then a member of said we had no case because we were self-employed. To hear our union echoing the same flawed argument as the council left us feeling totally hopeless. We had no union support, no legal team, no voice, but we decided to take the case forward on our own.
I was days away from representing myself in court when I came across the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union. I reached out as soon as I saw it had a branch for foster care workers fighting for recognition and had already won cases for so-called “gig economy” workers in other sectors. The IWGB helped us secure an adjournment while it found us the amazing legal team we have now, who have carried us all this way.
The union has also fought to get lasting legislative change for all foster care workers by teaming up with MPs from across parliament to create the all-party parliamentary group on foster care work. Now we are campaigning for an independent register to put an end to the days of punitive deregistration and also for the foster care workers’ bill, which will introduce basic employment rights.
Foster care workers need recognition because valuing the work means valuing the worker, and the work we do is invaluable. These are our communities’ most vulnerable children, who need and deserve professional support. As a foster care worker, you are part of a team alongside teachers, doctors, social workers. You’re the only one with no rights and protections, while the simple fact is you shoulder the greatest responsibility. You’re the primary caregiver; there day in and day out. You might have the best insight into a child’s needs but if you speak out on their behalf, you’re punished for it.
This often means deregistration: first they remove the children – to a children’s home if there are no other foster homes available; then you’re branded as a troublemaker and scratched from the foster carers’ register. They say: “We feel like you’ve lost faith in us, so we can no longer work with you.”
This could never be said to the parents of a child with complex needs. Why should those in foster care be the only ones without an independent advocate who knows and cares about them? The kids lose out and care agencies remain completely unaccountable, protected from all scrutiny.
I never wanted to be writing articles or speaking in court, let alone parliament. But the rights of foster care workers are systematically denied and young people pay the price. The law needs to change and that is a difference that we can only make by unionising and fighting for it.
Ultimately, that’s what our case is about. It opens the door for more foster care workers to follow us, speak out and win cases like we have. Councils will say our case is different because we worked in a “specialist” project. But in truth the work all foster care workers do is closely controlled by councils and fostering agencies. We provide a professional and essential public service, and should be granted the basic rights that protect workers – and protect those in our care.
Done right, foster care can change lives. The first step to making sure that it does is to recognise the value of the work and the rights of the people that do it day and night.