We want ‘just’ wages

If aged care workers want wage increases, they shouldn’t rely on the Australian industrial relations system to deliver it, says one of the sector’s main trade unions.

By Yasmin Noone

One of the sector’s leading unions is quickly losing faith in the Australian industrial relations system saying that, as it stands, it fails aged care workers and perpetuates a state of ‘wage injustice’.

United Voice (UV) has publically stated that it no longer believes the industrial relations system is the way to go to acheive sector-wide wage rises.

Instead of looking towards the system it is traditionally supposed to go to for help, the union is now calling for government intervention.

Marking a reinvigorated push for aged care wage increases and structural wage reform, UV released its new position paper, Working in Aged Care: A Lifetime of Labour Market Disadvantage this month.

In the paper, UV argues that government intervention is necessary to establish a better mechanism to determine the true cost of care and wages. This would fix the structural impediments to wage rises, which the union believes are embedded in both the current system of wage determination and the aged care sector itself.  

The union also suggests that it has not yet yielded wage increases for its aged care members because the industrial relations system fosters wage ‘injustice’, is flawed and poorly equipped to meet the sector’s needs.

UV has thus called for ‘wage justice’ to be restored by introducing “professional rates of pay” equivalent to that of a tradesperson, with a base rate of $26 per hour for a certificate three qualified worker.

Assistant national secretary for UV, Sue Lines, stressed the importance of the organisation’s new paper in its campaign for structural wage reform.

“What we uncovered and put together in this paper is new ground,” Ms Lines said.

“The paper details a whole range of structural impediments to wage increases which disadvantage the aged care workforce.”

“We also really wanted to establish the argument within the industry that we will not achieve wage justice through the low paid bargaining application or any other avenue through Fair Work Australia (FWA).”

According to UV, sector awards offer no protection for the female-dominated aged care workforce because they are designed for a full-time workforce, and not one characterised by part-time and casual employees, as is the case in aged care.

The paper also states that the current awards are inadequate because they do not recognise the true value of aged care work and therefore set too low a benchmark for pay.

“The work [of women] is undervalued and the aged care system traps them in low pay,” the UV paper states.

“…Caring work is thought of as ‘women’s work’. Wage injustice in aged care is exacerbated by societal conventions that associate caring work as an extension of unpaid and undervalued work that women perform at home.

“These conventions propagate the assumption that aged care work is unskilled.

“Countless studies have shown that care workers are low paid because their skills are not recognised: the interpersonal skills of aged care workers are not considered to be specialist skills. The lack of an obvious technical language reinforces the assumption that aged care workers do not have specialist knowledge.

 “The reality is that aged care workers ‘articulate’ specialist knowledge into everyday language for the benefit of older people and their families. Aged care workers ‘translate’ medical terminology into everyday language appropriate for the older person. They undertake significant work ‘behind the scenes’ to ensure that services run smoothly.

“The skilled nature of aged care work is invisible to the older person and their family. Assumptions that aged care work is unskilled ‘women’s work’ go unchallenged because women make up 90 per cent of the aged care workforce.”

Although UV is a party to the Australian Services Union’s equal remuneration order currently before Fair Work Australia, the full bench is still yet to determine how much wages should increase to put female workers on par with their male counterparts.

In doing so, it will most likely take into account the employer’s ability to pay. Without extra government funding for employers to pay increased wages, the paper says, this puts employers and employees back to square one.

UV also substantiates that the industrial relations mechanisms currently available to the unions to increase its members’ pay (Fair Work Australia applications and attempts at mediation, conciliation and enterprise bargaining) are ineffective when it comes to aged care.

The system of enterprise bargaining, the paper says, fails aged care workers as it is based on the assumption that workers have the ability to bargain while the reality is that many do not.

Unlike other industries, aged care is not a heavily unionised sector so little bargaining eventuates. Also, enterprise bargaining achieves nothing if employers can not afford to pay higher wages.

“Without wage justice, experienced aged care workers will continue to leave the industry in search of a better deal. With attention squarely on the industry during the aged care reform process, this is the opportunity to fix the problem of wage injustice.

“…This disadvantage cannot be overcome through industrial avenues within the Fair Work Act.”

What’s the alternative?

UV is therefore looking outside the traditional methods of wage determination and beyond the industrial relations system for a wage-related solution.

Government intervention, the union states, is the only possible way to overcome structural issues and achieve wage justice. 

“We believe the government has to lift the wages floor,” Ms Lines said. 

“We aren’t saying that the federal government should simply fund the difference [between what wages are paid now and what wages should be paid] as we believe additional funding may not fully go into the worker’s pocket.

“But instead, the federal government should lift the [wages] floor so we can then bargain around the set rates…

“The opportunity for structural wage reform is here right now. If not now, when? Because now is the opportunity.”

Tags: aged-care, award-aged-care, fair-work-act, fair-work-australia, government, industrial-relations, labour-market-disadvantage, sue-lines, the-voice, united-voice, uv, wage-justice, wages,

1 thought on “We want ‘just’ wages

  1. Informative article which gives clear insights on the wages of individuals in Australia… Glad to know these facts…Thanks for this and keep posting such stuff more often..

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