Many hospitals are treating apprentices, including those in healthcare support roles, as “cheap labour” by paying them the minimum wage, according to a union.
More than a third of employers across the NHS are hiring apprentices at the statutory minimum of £3.30 per hour, despite having the facility to pay them more under Agenda for Change, said Unison.
“When it comes to apprentices it’s a free-for-all”
Apprentices were being used as a cheap alternative to plug staffing gaps, claimed the union in its report – titled You’re Hired: A Unison Report on Apprenticeships in the NHS.
It also raised concerns that NHS employers were failing to ensure staff on in-work training programmes gained a recognised qualification or even completed their apprenticeship.
The report was based on 233 responses to a Freedom of Information request sent in November to trusts, boards and clinical commissioning groups in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Unison analysed pay rates for common apprenticeship roles including healthcare assistants, pharmacy workers and administrators.
It found apprentices working in healthcare support roles received £4.22. Overall, the average pay for many of the apprentices in the survey for 2014-15 was less than £4 an hour.
However, the minimum on the lowest AfC pay band in England and Northern Ireland during that period was £7.31. Scotland in contrast to the rest of the UK has agreed to pay all apprentices £8.25 an hour.
It comes as apprentice numbers in England are set to soar as a result of new targets and a compulsory levy on NHS employers.
The target number of apprentices the NHS in England is expected to hire annually is set to rise from 17,000 in 2015-16 to 100,000 by 2020.
Meanwhile, the apprenticeship levy will be introduced in April 2017, which will mean employers have to pay a sum upfront to pay for in-work training schemes that will be offset by subsequent allowances if they take on enough apprentices .
The government’s idea is that employers will be able to get back more than they put in by training sufficient numbers of apprentices.
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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,” she said. “But when it comes to apprentices it’s a free-for-all.
“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,” she added.
The report was released ahead of the start of the union’s annual healthcare conference in Brighton.