NHS exploiting apprentices through low pay, warns UNISON

Many hospitals are treating apprentices as cheap labour by routinely paying them the minimum wage, even though they often do exactly the same jobs as colleagues earning considerably more, according to a new report. 

More than a third of employers across the NHS are hiring apprentices at the statutory minimum of £3.30 per hour, when there are provisions to pay them much more under established Agenda for Change pay rates across the NHS.

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You’re Hired: A UNISON Report on Apprenticeships in the NHS suggests health service employers are plugging staffing gaps with apprentices in return for low pay and minimal on-the-job training.

The report also raises concerns that NHS employers are failing to ensure that their staff on in-work training programmes either gain a recognised qualification or even complete their apprenticeships.

The report’s findings are based on information from 233 NHS trusts, health boards and clinical commissioning groups across the UK who responded to a UNISON Freedom of Information request.

You’re Hired  analysed the pay rates for common apprenticeship roles including healthcare assistants, pharmacy workers and those working in administration.

It comes as apprentice numbers in the NHS are set to soar as a result of new targets and a compulsory levy on NHS employers. The trusts that responded have taken on an increasing number of apprentices, rising from 2,196 in 2012/13 to 3,325 in 2014/15.

The average pay for many of the apprentices in the survey for 2014/15 was less than £4 an hour, yet the minimum pay for staff on the lowest Agenda for Change band in England and Northern Ireland in that period was £7.31.

The UNISON survey found apprentices in finance had an hourly average rate of £3.43, while those in IT were on an average of £3.62 an hour. Administrative apprentices were paid an average of £3.93 and healthcare support workers, £4.22.

UNISON head of health Christina McAnea  said: “This is a low-pay scandal and will get worse given the government’s push for the NHS to meet higher targets for hiring apprentices.

“All other NHS staff are protected by a nationally negotiated pay structure which ensures consistent, fair and equal wages. But when it comes to apprentices it’s a free-for-all. They are often left vulnerable to exploitation, having to take on all the responsibilities of full-time staff, in return for an hourly rate that isn’t enough to live on.

“At the very least we need a new national agreement on apprenticeship pay rates so the people on them get a fair deal and real career progression. Otherwise the reputation of the NHS will be damaged and we’ll end up with a two-tier workforce where apprentices feel undermined and demoralised.”

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