Welsh workers and trade union officials say staff shortages can be addressed with better pay and employer transparency.

In the second part of The National’s look at the state of work in Wales, workers told us that employers could entice new staff by offering a higher basic rate of pay, training and career progression opportunities, and transparency in job adverts.

Trade union officials, meanwhile, suggested that low pay and insecure work contracts now make employment rates an inaccurate measure of the country’s economic wellbeing.

The National recently covered Health Minister Eluned Morgan’s plea for people in Wales to “step up” and fill the then-700 job vacancies in the Welsh care sector, telling the public: “your country needs you in this very, very difficult situation.”

Meanwhile, a UK-wide shortage of HGV drivers has impacted on everything from food supply and construction to sewage treatment and rubbish collection.

Shortages have widely been attributed both to Brexit and Covid-19 sickness absences, but others say this isn’t the full picture.

READ MORE: Campaign launched to recruit in hospitality following staff shortages

Nisreen Mansour, Policy Officer at the Wales Trades Union Congress, said that benefits cuts and an overemphasis on lowering unemployment rates through government “back-to-work” schemes, had degraded job quality over time, by making employers over-reliant on low-paid and casual staff.

She said: “These initiatives focus on getting people into a job, typically without any consideration for what sort of pay or career prospects it will give someone.

“We know that this won’t necessarily lift people out of poverty, and it may not improve their wellbeing either.

“We’re only aware of one employability scheme which specifically focusses on progressing people into a higher paid role.”

The National Wales: The TUC's Nisreen Mansour says governments should be more responsible with the jobs they encourage people to takeThe TUC's Nisreen Mansour says governments should be more responsible with the jobs they encourage people to take

Many unemployed benefit claimants face sanctions if they refuse a job offer, or if they fail to apply for a given job when told to do so – making them more likely to accept badly paid and/or insecure work.

The ready availability of these more vulnerable, less-picky workers, Nisreen said, has affected not only the individuals themselves but the entire working landscape.

“It can shift the burden of risk – like the risk of a fall in demand – onto the workers rather than the employer,” she added.

READ MORE: Workers facing redundancy can drive HGVs says Government minister

Not having to keep on casual staff during quiet periods, and not having to provide paid holidays and sick leave, Nisreen said, makes them attractive prospects to employers.

“You may even see employers offering insecure workers a higher hourly wage, because overall it is cheaper for them,” she added.

“The complexity of labour law and the nature of insecure work means that it can be very difficult for workers to even identify that they’re being exploited.”

Research by The Living Wage Foundation earlier this year indicated that Welsh workers were the least secure in the UK, with more than a quarter in insecure employment.

The organisation campaigns for £9.50 an hour as the basic rate of pay – the “real living wage” – which is calculated based on the current cost of living.

The same report found people in Wales were most likely to be both paid below the real living wage rate and in insecure jobs.

Service sector employers, such as bars and restaurants, are most likely to use lower-paid casual staff, as well as employers in the agricultural sector, for crop harvesting – but the practice is also widespread in public services.

READ MORE: Social care in Wales needs urgent reform

Just under a quarter of residential care workers are on so-called “zero hours’” contracts, while 2019 research indicated that 69% of school supply teachers in Wales were agency workers.

This week, 66-year-old adult social care worker Siân Stockham, from Abergavenny, and supply teaching assistant and single mother Kath Brookes, 41, from the Valleys, each told The National their current pay did not reflect the difficulty and skill needed in their jobs.

Kath, who loves her job, told The National that attending to the individual needs of each child in her care can nevertheless be gruelling work, particularly when caring for disabled children.

As an agency worker, she’s not entitled to paid sick leave or holidays, and has no guaranteed hours – but feels stuck in the job while her three sons are still young.

“One girl – she bit me, kicked me, headbutted me, tried to climb the school fence. You’ve got to be on that ball, all day every day,” she said.

“You’ll be absolutely wiped out, and then you’ll work out it only amounted to about thirty quid at the end of the day – you’re thinking, ‘oh my gosh.’”

Siân feels social care workers are also underestimated.

“People think you’re thick,” she said.

“It can be condescending – some of the most intelligent people I know are carers.

“People say – ‘ah, we’ll clap for carers on a Thursday’.

“I don’t want you to clap for me, I don’t need that – what I need is enough money to put food on my table and keep a roof over my head.”

Nisreen thinks current staff shortages could signal the start of a course correction, if employees are empowered to ask for more.

“In some sectors we’ve seen how unsustainable this situation has become – bosses simply weren’t able to recruit as they were paying far below what people found to be an acceptable rate for the job,” she told The National.

“This is an important rebalancing and governments shouldn’t intervene so that we revert back to old, exploitative models.”

READ MORE:

Ordinarily we would expect to see a steady wage increase in times where demand for workers exceeds supply.

Cian Tudur, of the Wales Fiscal Analysis Research Unit, said that it’s too early to tell whether that’s happening yet, but there may be positive signs in available data.

“The best source we have right now is the information published by HMRC on payrolled employees – which doesn’t include self-employed people,” he said.

The National Wales: Cian says it's too early to know for certain that wages are risingCian says it's too early to know for certain that wages are rising

“In August 2021, median pay for employees in Wales was up 9.7 per cent on two years ago and up 8 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. This growth rate is relatively high by recent standards.”

Cian warns, however, that low-paid staff dropping out of the workforce - hospitality servers losing their jobs, for example – might mean data on the remaining workforce paints a rosier picture than reality.

How can employers fill staff shortages?

Factory production manager Tom, 27, who did not want to be identified, said employers should be transparent when they advertise vacancies.

“The job description, the rate of pay, and the working hours have got to be clear - you need to know what you're applying for,” he said.

READ MORE: The Welsh employers ‘shamed’ for paying less than minimum wage

He also thinks that the current government living wage is not sufficient.

“It should be about £10.50, because we all have a right to live and people aren’t living on £8.91 an hour,” he said.

Kath meanwhile, thinks people in her profession should be respected more.

She said: “You want to feel valued and appreciated, and you’ve got to be able to manage in your job – afford all your bills and have a little bit of a life afterwards.

“The pay needs to be worth what you’re doing.”

Siân said a more flexible benefit system might encourage new people into social care, by allowing unemployed claimants to try taster shifts on full pay, without fear of losing their entitlements if they change their mind.

“We could fast-track people back onto the benefits if it didn’t work,” she said.

“I understand it’s not for everyone, but I absolutely love this job – I think I was born to do it.”

You can find a trade union for your profession here.

Advice on employment issues is available through Citizens Advice.

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