UNISON has empowered me to speak up

Polly Smith, homecare worker

Once I was in a care home and a man took out a knife. The non-trade union members didn’t act on it – they thought if they told anyone about it, managers would think they were complaining and they’d lose their jobs. But I thought that there must be a reason behind the behaviour, and I rang the office and told them about it.

I work in homecare now as part of a re-enablement programme, which means we try to get people to regain independence so they can do things for themselves.

The oldest person I went to visit was 104 at the time; she did everything for herself. She had trouble bending over, but she could boil an egg. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you can’t do things for yourself.

Nowadays I see a lot of harm being done. Employers are getting away with a lot and non-union members are letting them. For example, not letting homecare workers have breaks: some start work at 6.30am and finish at 10pm.

It doesn’t have to be like that – it leads to stress and sickness. You’ve got to stand up for yourself, and unions help you do that. Unions are insurance (with a small ‘i’); if you want assistance, if you want advice, the union can do that for you.

Homecare workers have a lot more responsibility than people give them credit for. People think homecare workers are just ‘the help’ who go in and do a bit of cleaning, but we can see when people are getting really ill. We see people once, maybe four times, a day so we notice the change in people – in a way doctors can’t.

The saddest thing is the impact of the cuts. For example, in the past someone who was incontinent was given pads and an inco sheet (which absorbs urine) for their bed .

Now they only get one or the other, so I’ll go in to see people in the morning and their pads are soaked, their beds are soaked, their mattress, even the floor. If they’d had an inco sheet it would have absorbed it.

In the end, it turned out the man with the knife was on the wrong medication. They only realised because I rang up. It was changed and he was completely different; he didn’t hurt anyone, or himself.

That’s what being in a trade union does – it empowers you to challenge things.