The aging populations in wealthy nations, known as the First World, are facing increasing health and care concerns. The complex needs that come with aging require expensive care, putting a strain on both family resources and public finances.
Even in state-funded healthcare systems like Scotland’s, care providers are not well paid, leading to challenges in retaining staff and providing adequate care. Low wages drive many caregivers to leave the profession, resulting in inefficiencies in delivering social care to those who need it most and placing a burden on the healthcare system. Currently, the minimum pay rate for care workers in Scotland is just under £11 an hour, with a government pledge to raise it to £12 an hour by 2024.
Exact figures for 2023 are difficult to find, but there are reports of health workers leaving their positions in large numbers. In the United Kingdom, healthcare workers, from caregivers to qualified nurses, have been leaving the healthcare sector for better-paying jobs at places like Amazon warehouses or working at supermarkets and petrol stations.
Catholic leaders in Scotland, along with counterparts from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, have recently advocated for fair pay for workers in this essential sector. The Most Rev. Bill Nolan, Archbishop of Glasgow, and Rev. Iain Greenshields, at the time moderator of the Church of Scotland, signed a joint declaration in May urging the Scottish government to increase the pay of care workers to at least £12 an hour. They also encouraged other faith leaders in Scotland to support the declaration.
Since political devolution in the United Kingdom in 1999, healthcare has primarily been the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. However, Scottish governments still operate within the fiscal restraints of the current devolution settlement. They cannot borrow or issue money as an independent country would. Healthcare provision is funded through a Westminster “block grant,” which returns a portion of UK taxes raised in Scotland each year for public spending.
The Scottish Parliament does have some limited tax-raising powers, which can contribute to healthcare resources. The current spending on health and social care in Scotland is a record £19 billion, but the sector could benefit from additional funding.
Another challenge related to an aging society is the significant number of unpaid carers, usually family members of the elderly. These unpaid carers are often an invisible workforce. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that there were as many as 800,000 unpaid carers in Scotland, with approximately 29,000 of them being under 18.
The loss of salaried work to care for a family member not only reduces the living standards of the carers and their families but also represents a loss to the national economy. The Scottish government has provided financial and other support for carers since 2018, recognizing their rights and paying special attention to young carers.
Catholic leaders in Scotland have joined their Presbyterian counterparts in advocating for fair pay for healthcare workers in the elderly care sector. Archbishop Nolan emphasized that failing to value care workers also means treating those they care for with a lack of respect and dignity. Rev. Greenshields stated that the church’s mission of continuing the work of Jesus requires a fair system of care that provides equitable access.
Healthcare providers, especially those serving the elderly, have limited economic power and are hesitant to use what power they do have. Therefore, it is crucial for civil society and the government to recognize and value those who serve the elderly. The call to protect human dignity applies not only to those who need care but also to those who provide it.
In terms of biblical values and Christian justice, our tradition demands a deep concern for the less fortunate, including widows, orphans, and now the sick and elderly. It is essential that we prioritize their well-being in our society.