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Many personal care workers (PCWs) in aged care believe they would be better off financially working as supermarket checkout operators, the Aged Care Royal Commission heard on Day 3 of this week’s Melbourne hearing examining workforce issues.

Giving evidence as part of a panel made up of employer and union representatives, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF Victorian Branch) Assistant Secretary Paul Gilbert said carers felt undervalued because of low rates of pay.

“The comment I hear when I go and have meetings [with members] is ‘I could get paid more working on the checkout at ALDI’ and it’s technically true,” Mr Gilbert told the commission.

He said carers often ask themselves why their chosen career is less valued than working at a supermarket.

“That’s what they tend to compare themselves to because they see these jobs advertised with an hourly rate of $24, $25, $26. Our enrolled nurse and registered nurse members are paid more than the personal care worker cohort but not by a whole lot more.”

Counsel assisting the commission, Paul Bolster, began Day 3 proceedings by questioning the workforce panel on their respective job roles and biggest issues that emerge from their daily dealings with the members they represent.

Lisa Alcock, from the Health Workers Union, said HWU represented some of the lowest paid, invisible workers within the aged care sector such as cleaners, personal care workers, cooks, and orderlies.

“The two most critical pieces of feedback that we receive from members on a daily basis is the alarming rate of occupational violence, and that [it] is something you just have to accept when you work in aged care,” Ms Alcock revealed.

“The second is that the incredibly low rate of pay is something that you have to similarly accept and it’s hard to accept because I feel that you can’t have workers working poor and working them into poverty essentially.”

Mr Gilbert cited staffing as the biggest issue he encounters.

“The registered nurse membership have professional obligations,” he explained.

“They can only delegate care to people who they have assessed as being competent and the don’t have the staff numbers or the level of skill required for that safe, competent delegation to occur so it’s all about staffing and skill mix.”

Darren Mathewson, from Aged and Community Services Australia, said ACSA represents a large number of Not-For-Profit aged care providers delivering residential home care and other services.

Dealing predominantly with CEOs of small rural and regional providers, Mr Mathewson claimed the biggest issues relayed to him involve the financial constraints of developing good Enterprise Agreements that enable better wages and conditions for employees.

United Voice representative Clare Tunney also identified low pay as the biggest issue that emerges through representing carers, enrolled nurses and ground staff in residential and home care.

“We consistently hear that they’re concerned about low pay, the erosion of existing conditions, that they don’t have adequate training, they don’t have manageable workloads, that there aren’t enough staff on the floor and that they have significant concerns about job security.”

Delving into pay and conditions within the aged care sector, counsel assisting, Mr Bolster, told the hearing the aged care modern award provides minimum rates for a full-time PCW in aged care ranging from $20 to $25.

Ms Tunney said the figure showed aged care workers were “really undervalued”, a view shared by fellow panellist Ms Alcock.

“I think it places a societal value on that work, predominantly female work, which is undervaluing that work,” Ms Alcock said.

Mr Mathewson said his members lamented the low rate of pay within the sector, suggesting that a strategic action outlined in the recent report handed down by the Aged Care Workforce Strategy Taskforce to lift remuneration by at least 15% across the board should be considered.

“There is a structural need to adjust remuneration and we do agree with the unions that our industry has historically been viewed as an extension of care work previously delivered informally in the past and there is a need to look at it relative to other industries and lift the value, the social image of that work and absolutely the remuneration.”

Ms Alcock told the hearing aged care workers were much better off financially if they worked in the public health system than private, adding that as well as low pay many in the sector undertake large amounts of unpaid work.

“When we surveyed our members, 70% of workers we spoke to (1600 people) reported some amount of unpaid labour. There’s so much work that’s not being paid and they’re only being paid $21 an hour.”

The panel was quizzed on the level of casual labour relied upon in aged care and the preferences of both employers and employees, including the uptake of conversion from casual to permanent part-time across the sector.

Jenna Field, from Leading Aged Care Services Australia (LASA), said many employees choose to remain casual for greater flexibility and that she had never come across a permanent part-time conversion request that had been denied by an employer.

HWU’s Ms Alcock, however, suggested most workers in her experience were unaware of their rights and when they were battled hurdles to make the request and substantiate their claim so they could convert their employment.

“The majority of workers who responded that they had multiple employment responded that they did so because they were trying to make ends meet. That’s indicative that they need to do that because they’re trying to piece together a living wage and if they were given the option of having the security of employment they would take that.”

Moving to the issue of negotiating rates of pay in enterprise agreements, counsel assisting, Mr Bolster, enquired about the trends in the range of pay increases sought and offered during negotiations by both unions and employers.

“How much do you ask for Mr Gilbert?” Mr Bolster said.

“Too much it would seem,” Mr Gilbert quipped back.

Mr Mathewson said current funding constraints meant the range could be anything from 1-3.5%.

Mr Gilbert said negotiations took a lot of back and forth discussion.

“Firstly, the employer position at the base end is we’re going to do nothing and duck and hide and hope you go away. The next level up is we’ll give you CPI on government indexation, whichever is the higher and the next level up in this round has been 2.5% and nothing more,” he said.

“The pressure point from our membership is that they can’t understand why they don’t get paid the same rates as our other taxpayer funded positions but what they do critically understand is if they get a high wage increase then their hours will be reduced.”

Mr Bolster later asked Mr Gilbert how the ANMF (Victorian Branch) had managed to introduce staff ratios within some enterprise agreements in private aged care.

“We’ve only achieved it with three approved providers and I guess they’ve been approved providers who were prepared to step out into the light,” Mr Gilbert said.

“I’m sure some of the other employers weren’t too pleased that they did it. So TLC included what are reasonable ratios, not good ratios, but certainly a lot better than other staffing levels we’ve seen.”

Mr Gilbert told the hearing that aged care enterprise agreements were very rarely completed smoothly and that industrial action, as seen with the recent standoff with BUPA back in 2017, was not taken lightly by members.

“It’s not a comfortable place for people who provide care to take protected industrial action.”

Ms Alcock concurred.

“There’s a real impact on a worker if they decide to take industrial action to try and force an outcome and even then if you take industrial action in the aged care setting, there’s a very real possibility that the government will call that action off and say you can’t take industrial action because of the impact on your residents.”

In the end, Mr Gilbert told the hearing the BUPA dispute ended without success in attaining nurse-to-patient ratios and a loss of 23 RN positions.

“They didn’t get those positions back and we had to sell that we’re not going to get ratios out of the likes of BUPA. If we’re going to get ratios it’s going to be at a Commonwealth level.”