Incredibly some people are paid actual money for their house and pet sitting services. The Guardian’s Richard Colbey looks at the impact the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 has had on the world of house sitting agencies and their employees.
Saturday 17 March 2001
The task of looking after a property in the owner’s absence – deterring burglars, watering plants and feeding cats – might not, in most eyes, constitute work. Nonetheless, the Inland Revenue has ruled that housesitters employed by a Hertfordshire agency are workers and therefore entitled to the minimum wage of £3.70 per hour, shortly rising to £4.10.
Although it has been suggested that this ruling could make all housesitters prohibitively expensive, it is in fact likely to have more impact on agencies’ profitability than on sitters themselves. The National Minimum Wage Act 1998, in anticipation of shady employers looking for loopholes in the legislation, was one of the most tightly drafted acts of parliament there has ever been. ‘Agency workers’ are expressly protected by the act. The fact that what housesitters do may not seem to amount to work, makes little difference. Any task, however pleasant or undemanding, that a person contracts to do is work.
There is some relief for agencies from regulations which allow employers to not pay for hours when employees are asleep. Making an allowance for sleeptime, and because most housesitters are allowed out for a little while during the day, the Revenue has ruled that only 12 hours per day need to be paid for. A deduction of £2.85 per day can be made because living accommodation has been provided, but this still requires a payment of £41.55 per day, over £290 per week.
Agencies typically charge home owners £200 to £250 per week, and might pay their sitters £80. An agency able to supply 50 sitters at a time makes a very substantial profit. If agencies retain their massive mark-up and pay the minimum wage, the cost of a housesitter could rise to £500 per week.
Not surprisingly, the industry is outraged by the Revenue’s ruling, and eight agencies have clubbed together to fight it at an employment tribunal. They will claim that most housesitters, particularly retired people, regard it primarily as a free holiday in pleasant surroundings.
There may be a lot of common sense in the argument that paying such housesitters less than the minimum wage does not amount to the form of exploitation the legislation was intended to end, but that will not sway a tribunal, bound by the words of the act.
Individuals who engage sitters directly are less likely to fall foul of the minimum wage legislation. There is an exception where the person providing the services does so for a client or customer of their business. Most housesitters would no more think of themselves as a business than they would workers. However, those who wish to do the work and are prepared to charge less than the minimum wage, can contract in that way, describing themselves as ‘Jo Bloggs Homeminding Services’, or whatever.
Housesitters employed by agencies will usually have been vetted, something which it may not be practical to do when employing someone who advertises in a local newspaper. Nonetheless, taking references and checking that the person really lives where they claim should be sufficient. Of course, using a sitter recommended by a friend may be even safer.
In either case, the homeowner not only seems to avoid having to pay the minimum wage, but is saved the agency fee.
Richard Colbey is a barrister
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004