International students on temporary visas and Pacific Islanders brought to Australia under a targeted employment program are filling the gap in the aged care workforce, the royal commission heard today.
Professor Sara Charlesworth, director of the Centre for People, Organisation and Work at RMIT has been researching the employment of frontline aged care staff for 25 years, during which she says there’s been a move from a permanent migrant workforce to a temporary one.
She told the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety on Wednesday that aged care workers experience poor working conditions and are under-paid, under-recognised and not valued by society or their employers.
The workforce is also poorly unionised, estimated at under 15 per cent, and highly gendered, she said.
Professor Charlesworth said the sector suffered from an attitude that caring is something women are “born to do naturally”, leading to a perception that skills are not required.
Failure of enterprise bargaining
Professor Charlesworth told the commission that while Enterprise Bargaining Agreements were a good idea in principle, they had failed the aged care sector.
“That’s been an abject failure in aged care partly because a lot of home care workers don’t have access to enterprise bargaining,” she said. “EBAs are not practical particularly in home home care where you work outside of an institutional workplace.”
She also said consumer directed care had come at the expense of the workforce, with employers demanding more flexibility, including more permanent part time work. Often the “flexibility” worked against the interests of employees.
Reliance on temporary migrants.
Professor Charlesworth also warned against relying on temporary aged care workers, describing it as a “concerning” trend.
Previously migrant workers in aged care were long-term permanent workers with full rights and protections, she said. But today they are increasingly on temporary visas, including international students, who face strict criteria for the number of hours they can be in paid employment per week.
“We are increasingly using what my colleagues and I describe as a number of ‘back doors’, so international students are used a lot in residential aged care,” she said.
Professor Charlesworth said the recently implemented Pacific Labour Scheme introduced last year, which aims to bring in Pacific Islander workers, was framed as a win-win situation for the aged care sector, but the program also raised concerns.
The workers were temporary, were unable to bring family, were not covered by social protections like Medicare and were located outside major cities, she told the commission.
“It sets up a whole lot of vulnerabilities,” she said. “This is seen as a solution to workforce deficits rather than addressing decent wages and remuneration.
“It’s really only a temporary solution. The solution is to do something about the wages and the working conditions and skill recognition in the sector rather than relying on short term fixes.
“What we need is a stable, sustainable workforce. You need people who are going to be able to stay there.”
NZ leading the way
Professor Charlesworth also raised the issue of home care workers not being paid travel time, and not being paid for time they may be waiting in their cars between clients, something she described as “quite extraordinary”.
She cited New Zealand as a country with “promising policies” in the aged care sector, including paid travel time and a more “devolved” approach to aged care provision via district health boards, which shared clients and information.
Scotland, meanwhile, has an aged care inspectorate which monitored provider outcomes based on consultations with workers and clients as well as providers, and made reports publicly available.
Asked by council assisting Erin Hill if having more men in the aged care sector would improve the current situation, Professor Charlesworth said it would provide an additional source of labour, but added that many female clients did not want personal care done by a man, putting an extra burden on existing female staff.