Unite backs a struggle to preserve a unique village where adults with learning disabilities and co-workers share their homes and work together. In doing so, Unite also wants to unionise and represent co-workers and paid employees at the village and the many other UK sites owned by the charity which runs it.
Camphill Village Trust (CVT) management at Botton Village in the North York Moors National Park is implementing radical change. Botton houses over 200 people, half with learning disabilities who are provided with full-time extended care and support by unsalaried co-workers who in return receive free accommodation in 29 large homes, food, travel costs, occasional holidays and expenses.
In May, co-workers were told they must become paid contractual staff. Posts are being advertised for support workers at £7.25 an hour, senior support workers at £7.75 – £8.25 and £10 an hour for team leaders. With the nearest train station three miles away applicants are advised to have their own transport . According to Andy Paton, CVT communications manager, the changes – also introduced in some of the other communities managed by the organisation nationally – result from “HMRC instructions and clear advice from our tax advisers and one of the UK’s leading tax barristers.” The trust recently released a supportive document from the HMRC
In response to what is an extremely complicated and complex employment matter, the co-workers at Botton have engaged professional representation. It is contended that when these legal representatives telephoned HMRC the tax organisation had offered an ‘opinion rather than a ruling’ and that the decision to change the status of the co-workers to employees was ‘the decision of the CVT charity and not that of HMRC.’
A letter signed by the majority of co-workers has been sent to the CVT management calling for negotiations to take place rather ‘than involving statutory bodies.’ The majority of Botton staff and users contend the changes are about introducing a more hierarchical management system. They argue this will result in many co-workers leaving and a poorer service for disabled people. Based on the spiritual educational concepts of Rudolf Steiner, the Camphill Movement that today has over 100 communities worldwide has its origins in the fight against fascism.
In 1938, Doctor Karl Konig, along with a group of young helpers and children with learning disabilities escaped to Britain after Germany annexed Austria. Camphill House, Aberdeen was opened during a period when educational provision for children with learning disabilities was virtually non-existent in Britain. Similar schools were established and in 1955 the first adult provision at Botton was opened. The 600-acre Botton site has four working farms, a highly sophisticated seed factory, a bakery, a café, a school, a woodwork shop, church, a village shop and even a concert hall. It has ample space in which to explore the spectacular local countryside in safety and there is a range of social, cultural, religious and educational activities. Botton is financed by product sales, legacy donations and from being a registered social care provider.
Residents love living there. James Skinner suffers from autism and Addison’s disease. His parents live in Kent. “I get on well with them but I prefer living as independently as I can in a sustainable and safe village in the countryside. I make wooden toys and work in the seed workshop. The co-workers have helped me enormously with all aspects of my life including my speech. They are very enthusiastic and highly motivated and that should not be lost.”
Co-workers tasks are very varied. In addition to work placements they maintain the households and provide additional physical, welfare and emotional support to the adults with learning disabilities they live alongside. The co-workers come from right across the world. They are highly educated and although classed as self-employed they don’t draw a wage. When they require cash for a social activity they use internal cheques.
Staff live well. One long-term co-worker, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation, stated, “My life is comfortable but I have given up the opportunity of paying off a mortgage. The work can be exhausting as you are working with people with complex needs that require additional support. There is physical care and emotional support as well as helping to keep alive the cultural and spiritual life within the village. Things should stay as they are as Botton works well for those who live here.”
Meantime, local people who want to retain Botton as it is have established Action for Botton and are looking to remove the current management. Unite also believes every effort should be made to ensure that this model of providing support within a sheltered community is not lost. Unite also believes Botton should remain as it is. The union currently has members, but no recognition, in a number of CVT locations across the UK. The union was asked for assistance by a number of Botton co-workers during the summer. Over 30 are now Unite Community members. They are interested in how the one thousand strong Unite faith workers branch operates and the Reverend Adrian Judd was recently able to speak at a meeting in Botton about the benefits of Unite membership for all workers. Adrian was accompanied by Unite’s national officer for the not for profit sector, Sally Kosky, who said afterwards, “Unite is very concerned at what is happening at Botton. This is a unique community that works well. Destroying it would be a disservice to everyone as the alternative being proposed is the social care model where there is currently a race to the bottom on pay and conditions and which does not always deliver quality care for the vulnerable people involved Unite backs the co-workers. We are a union that helps give workers everywhere a voice with their management and that is what we are now aiming to do first at Botton and then more generally across CVT.”