The government’s proposed Industrial Relations Omnibus Bill threatens to exacerbate systemic issues within the aged care sector, including stagnated wage growth and the increased casualisation of the workforce, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) has argued at a Senate Inquiry.
ANMF Assistant Federal Secretary Lori-Anne Sharp, ANMF (SA Branch) Director, Operations and Strategy Rob Bonner, and three South Australian members on the ground gave evidence at last Wednesday’s public hearing in Adelaide examining the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 [Provisions].
In an opening statement, Ms Sharp told the Inquiry nurses, midwives and carers across the health and aged care workforce had shown extraordinary commitment in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, with their efforts including coordinating COVID-19 testing clinics, treating patients in ICU and COVID wards, and caring for vulnerable elderly residents in nursing homes.
Health and aged care workers faced long shifts, shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), fatigue, stress, and witnessed the tragic loss of life, particularly in the aged care sector, Ms Sharp added.
Instead of rewarding the workforce’s commitment, the government’s Industrial Relations Omnibus Bill would seek to “punish these very workers”, Ms Sharp told the Inquiry.
“We’re very concerned that this legislation is headed down the wrong path and will go no way in addressing some of the systemic problems – stagnated wage growth, insecure work and the increased casualisation of the workforce,” she said.
“We’re particularly worried about the impacts it will have in our aged care sector, a growing sector, which is largely female dominated, undervalued, already low paid and heavily weighted on the side of the employer.
“The Bill does nothing to address the power imbalance that currently exists between employer and employee, and, in many instances, it will make issues worse at a time when recruitment and retention of skilled staff will be absolutely critical in the aged care sector.”
Ms Sharp said the Bill would make it more difficult to grow the workforce and that the widespread problems uncovered by the Aged Care Royal Commission demanded attention be directed to improved wages and conditions, providing security and certainty around employment and restoring the power imbalance that currently exists.
She said some of the union’s main concerns with the Bill included amendments proposed to the Fair Work Act in relation to the definition of ‘casual’, the casual conversion clause, the exemptions to the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT), enterprise agreements and modern awards.
Ms Sharp invited ANMF members to share their personal stories on how the proposed legislation would directly impact them, but Chair of the hearing, Queensland Liberal Senator James McGrath, attempted to silence their voices out of the debate, citing limited time.
Ms Sharp strongly objected, and while members were denied the opportunity to make opening statement, her stance enabled them to answer direct questions.
Asked what she would say to the Prime Minister. If given the opportunity, about how the legislation rewards the hard work shown by nurses, midwives and carers throughout the pandemic, ANMF (SA Branch) member Belinda said:
“I would say that it’s a real kick in the guts. Other people got to stay home and work from home and not have the risk of taking this infectious disease home to their families,” she said.
“That is something real we had to prepare for. I had to prepare my husband and my kids and say, ‘If there is an outbreak, I am not coming home to give it to you. Mum has to stay somewhere else.’ That was a real fear we had to face, and we still showed up.
“Cutting shifts and making life harder for us when we are going to have to put in that extra effort and when it does affect our residential aged care facilities, that’s the time when everyone has to stand up. I want all the other nurses to stand up at that time, and I would hope that we would be rewarded for doing so.”
Posed the same question, fellow ANMF (SA Branch) member Karin said:
“I work in an acute area in a private hospital and not only have we been the backbone of the healthcare system this year, we have also done shift work, worked public holidays – working at Easter and Christmas, which I am sure the Prime Minister probably hasn’t – and have faced the risk of taking this initially unknown virus home to our families. What he is trying to do is just a slap in the face for all the nurses who have worked so hard this year.”
Aged care worker Ann invited the Prime Minister to spend a day working with her in aged care to see the level of work required.
“It is back-breaking work. We are emotionally drained. You work long hours, often without pay. Having this COVID around has added another layer of stress on top of our already stressful job. You are worried that you are going to bring it into the facility and bring it home. We are looking after the most vulnerable in our society, and it is stressful.”
Mr Bonner told the Inquiry that it was a combination of provisions in the proposed Bill that would have an impact on the workforce.
“It is the interaction between casual and part-time work,” he explained.
“We’ve got 80% of our people in the private sector working either part-time or casual shifts. They are predominantly female, with 90% of our industry being female dominated. There are low wages. A huge number in private sector are award reliant. Bargaining is grinding to a halt under the current scheme. It’s extremely hard to get new deals in aged care. There are those who are getting really low wage outcomes, and we can’t achieve anymore.”
Mr Bonner said the range of issues meant the workforce, particularly in aged care, were already at risk, and that the proposed Bill would only make matters worse.
With the Aged Care Royal Commission soon to hand down its final report, Ms Sharp told the Inquiry the Bill would have major consequences, particularly as there is going to be a need for an increase in skilled staff.
“We’re concerned about the proposed changes to the modern awards. Even though the nurses’ award and aged care award aren’t listed in the proposed Bill, we know that they can be regulated in at a whim.
“We’re concerned about the part around the additional hours for part-time workers. We’re concerned that that would just be a race to the bottom. We already have a problem with low contract hours in this sector, where employers tend to employ low contract hours, and, in reality, workers might be contracted to work a 10-hour week but they’re working a 30-hour week over a 12-month to two-year period. It gives all the flexibility to the employer and no security to the worker.”
Ms Sharp said this should be a time when the working conditions of aged care workers are enhanced, not diminished.
“They are some of the most incredible workers. It is really difficult work. It’s incredibly emotionally and physically exhausting. They’ve been undervalued for years.”
Asked about enterprise agreements and existing rules, Ms Sharp said that bargaining was becoming increasingly difficult, as aged care has become bigger and more privatised in recent decades.
“We’d like the rules to be balanced so that the employee gets an opportunity to have a say in some of their working conditions,” she said.
“I think that the exemption of the BOOT just goes to allowing for that slippery slope of conditions and for some of those safety nets to be eroded.
“I know that the award won’t be touched, but, particularly in our sector, a lot of the make-up pay is around penalty rates, for example, or shift allowances or meal allowances. So, to supplement their income, nurses actually tend to work unsociable shifts to get those penalty rates. They’re at risk with this legislation.”
The IR Omnibus Bill continues this week in Parliament Canberra.