International students, Pacific Islanders plug aged care workforce gap

Enterprise bargaining has been an ‘abject failure’ in terms of improving wages and conditions in the home care sector, the Royal Commssion has been told.

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.

Professor Sara Charlesworth

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.

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5 thoughts on “International students, Pacific Islanders plug aged care workforce gap

  1. I’m not sure where Professor Charlesworth is accessing her information from but I believe her comments regarding paying travel time to Home care workers is not reflective of the industry as a whole. I have been a provider of Community Aged Care Services since 1991 and have always paid our care workers travel time at their hourly rate between visits and in addition a per kilometre allowance. If there are providers not doing the right thing I believe they are definitely in the minority.

  2. Actually Trish Plunkett, not sure where you are getting your information from, but as a Home Care Worker l can tell you from experience that workers are not paid for mileage between clients or their travelling time or time spent waiting around in your car for shift to start.

    I have researched many home care providers in an effort to find better working conditions but on Melbourne, Victoria l have yet to find an employer who offer this.

    I have friends in this industry and not one is getting paid for their travelling or waiting time.

  3. With our unemployment levels being so high I am wondering why our unemployed are not being given the opportunity to train for these jobs? This is an area that’s only going to increase in demand, why give jobs away to untrained workers who are actually hurting our elderly as they don’t necessarily understand instructions. I’ve seen them in action, and seen the result. This is not a long term solution. Why are we not giving people on Newstart the same opportunities? I’ve been working in community for over 30 years and I am appalled that we are not looking after our own unemployed who could be doing a wonderful job and contributing to society.

  4. Katie
    If Care workers are not being paid their entitlements as you suggest they should be contacting the Fair Work Ombudsman who will investigate their concerns of underpayment
    with their employer.

  5. It’s actually NOT an entitlement. We are paid as a casual by the individual shifts that we work.
    So, if l work 5 x 1 hour shifts, first shift starting at 8am and last shift finishing at 6pm, l am paid for just 5 hours – no travelling time, no mileage between clients, no waiting around in the car for shift time and shifts can be cancelled with as little as 3 hours notice.
    This is the terms that myself and thousands of casual home care workers are employed under. We are the working poor.
    Somehow everyone keeps saying there are not enough aged care workers. This is simply not true. There is just not enough work to go around. Everyone l know in this industry is always looking for more work. I average 5 hours a day, 6 days a week, if there is so much work, why do l have to work 6 days a week to just scrape by?

    Something is just not adding up.

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