'Standing up to be counted'

International Women's Day: Health visitors in Wales take industrial action for the first time in history

Reading time: 7 min

Every day this week on UniteLive, we’re featuring one of our many inspiring women members in the lead up to International Women’s Day today – if you’ve missed any stories in our series, you can read them all here.

Today, we hear from Unite reps and health visitors Jo and Kerry, who are making history in Wales as they embark on an unprecedented industrial action.

A group of health visitors in Wales are taking a brave stand in an historic instance of industrial action.

Since late February, more than 70 health visitors in Wales have undertaken an overtime ban and are refusing to cover vacant caseloads apart from vulnerable families until July. It is the first time ever that health visitors – all women – have take industrial action in Wales.

At the heart of their dispute is unsustainable caseloads that have snowballed since the pandemic. Their responsibilities have increased to such a vast extent that their job descriptions – last updated 13 years ago – bear little resemblance to the roles they carry out now.

All they’re asking for is that they are recognised for the fundamental work they do serving some of Wales’ most vulnerable families.

UniteLive caught up with Unite reps and health visitors Kerry Parry and Jo Penny, whose months-long industrial action encompasses International Women’s Day today (March 8).

Both Kerry and Jo highlight just how dire the situation is for the children and their families that they support.

“We’re both based in the Rhondda Valley, which is among the most deprived areas in all of Wales,” Jo explained. “Many of the families we serve have a high level of need. We’re seeing that some children who were babies during the pandemic had a tough start, as did their parents. People couldn’t visit their friends and extended families, children missed out on school, mums might have had a hard time with delivery. We’re seeing the developmental impact in some of these children now.

Kerry noted that the cost-of-living crisis has also taken a huge toll.

“When you have so little to begin with, even the smallest price rises in necessities like food and energy has hit these families very hard. At the same time as costs have skyrocketed, public spending has been cut to the bone so families don’t have as much access to services that can help them. Charities are fewer and farther between. Several years ago, we didn’t issue as many food bank vouchers; now it’s very common.”

While the health visiting role is complex and multifaceted, part of their duties includes advising families with children under 5 on the health and development of their young ones. This can include advice on a number of issues such as immunisations, feeding, sleeping routines, mental health and much more.

Through their jobs, Kerry and Jo have seen first-hand the issues that disproportionately impact women, such as access to childcare, domestic abuse and more.  

“It’s been well-documented that especially in areas of deprivation, outcomes for children are directly linked to the health of their mothers,” Kerry explained. “If a mum has poor nutrition, poor housing, poor mental health, then that has a huge impact on children’s life chances later on.”

In this sense, the health visiting role is just as much about supporting women as it is about serving children, which makes the work that Kerry and Jo do especially poignant on International Women’s Day.

And it’s this vital work that Jo, Kerry and their colleagues are standing up for in their dispute. Jo explained that because of overwhelming caseloads, many health visitors have burned out and either gone off sick or have left the profession altogether.

“Because the job description doesn’t reflect the work we do, it’s become harder and harder to recruit and retain,” Jo noted. “There’s an expectation from management that we cover vacant caseloads, and that just puts more and more pressure on staff.”

Jo added that a number of duties have been added to their roles over the years, including playing lead roles in safeguarding children and supporting children with special needs.

“Other disciplines continue to cut back or streamline their services, and it’s just seen as an easy option to tell health visitors, ‘Well you can take that on because you’re working with families anyway’.”

As with the families they support, Jo and Kerry said that they and their colleagues are not immune to the cost-of-living crisis either.

“We use our own cars to visit families so the cost of petrol in particular has hit us hard,” Kerry explained. “And as health visitors, as is the case with all NHS workers, our pay has been massively over the years. The pay rises we have had have all been eaten up by inflation. NHS staff have been forced to turn to food banks too – it’s not just the families we serve.”

Jo and Kerry have worked closely with Unite officers over the last few months to speak to management about their concerns, but until the action started, their calls had fallen on deaf ears. Their employer Cwm Taf Morgannwg Health Board has repeatedly refused their requests to be given updated job descriptions.

These health visitors have exhausted every avenue to have their voices heard – they’ve now been left with no option but to take this unprecedented stand.  

“We voted in favour of taking industrial action short of a strike by 100 per cent, which just shows the strength of feeling about how we’ve been treated,” Kerry explained.

Because these health visitors know just how important their work is for the families they support, their action will not affect any of their clinical work.

“With our industrial action short of a strike, we’re refusing to do administrative work such as data collection,” Jo noted. “We’re not sending any data to the local authority or the Welsh government. This way, we’re still having a big impact through our action but the families we support will not be affected at all.”

Jo and Kerry told UniteLive that they were proud to be taking a stand during International Women’s Day.

“It’s unheard of for health visitors to be taking industrial action, but we’ve had enough,” Jo said. “I’m so proud of our members – all women – who are standing together and standing up to be counted, not only for their profession but for the children and families they work with.”

Kerry highlighted that since their dispute began, they’ve nearly doubled membership, from just over 40 to 73 members united in action now.

“You can see that we’re all united in fighting for change,“ she said. “Ultimately, we may be a small group, but we’ve got a big voice.”

By Hajera Blagg


Unite Equalities is hosting a special International Women’s Day online event on the day after IWD – Saturday (March 9), from 10-11.30am. You can hear from more inspiring Unite women members about the difference they’re making in their workplaces. The event is open to anyone – don’t miss out. You can register to attend here.