Carers of frail elderly say their own condition is critical

Aged-care staff have had a gutful of nursing their grievances. Lilly Sarafian explores what lies behind the latest eruption of industrial militancy in Australia’s healthcare sector.

One simple statistic demonstrates that those who look after the oldest generation of Australians must rank among the nation’s most dissatisfied wage earners.

A recent survey of the healthcare sector has revealed that 98 per cent of aged-care workers believe they do not receive a fair wage for the work they do.

Nurses and care workers at 13 Bupa-run aged-care centres across Victoria began a series of rolling strikes in October in support of a campaign for better wages and working conditions.

The survey of nurses and carers working with aged patients was carried out by Nursing Careers Allied Health, a career advice and educational service for healthcare professionals.

Ms Annie Jones – a personal care assistant with the Croydon branch of Bupa (the British-based multinational healthcare operator) – said aged-care workers were not recognised for the work they did providing daily care for society’s oldest members.

Conceding that those carers around 20 years of age often had lower living costs than others, Ms Jones stressed that many of their colleagues had “mortgages, kids and families who are on the same wage level” and they didn’t “make the cut”.

Superannuation was another area of concern where aged-care workers were greatly affected, she said.

“I earn $22 an hour as a personal care assistant and for a lot of residents I’m their point of call for everything. I definitely do think we should be more recognised.”

Pay grievances in the sector are long-standing, with strikes and protests culminating in a recent Federal Court appearance to argue for better pay and conditions – a fight that remains unresolved at the time of writing.

The ‘protected’ industrial action was taken by the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation – which with 259,000 registered members claims to be the nation’s largest union.

ANMF members are demanding a 10 per cent wage rise in a four-year agreement, plus what the union calls “catch-up” rates to bring Bupa employees up to industry standard rates enjoyed by colleagues at Bupa competitors such as Blue Cross and Royal Freemason.

In the cause of residents’ safety, the union is also campaigning for minimum staff numbers to be made mandatory at nursing homes.

Ms Donna Russell, a former human resources manager for Queensland Health, told The Standard, “It’s the least well-remunerated sector in health care apart from maintenance staff.”

Ms Russell explained that no tertiary qualifications were required for a role in aged care; most of the workforce comprised women, high school graduates and immigrants, making it a “lower-skilled sector”.

According to Ms Jones, the personal care assistant from Croydon, it can take as little as five months to become a qualified aged-care worker. In theory, the protocols and procedures seem simple but “new employees lack the time management, knowledge and instinct required for the role”.

In a media statement launching October’s stopwork action, the ANMF’s Victorian branch acting secretary, Paul Gilbert, said: “Nurses and carers should not have to fight for staff increases to provide vulnerable elderly Victorians with sufficient clinical nursing and personal care staff and a wage that reflects the value of this work.”

Ms Russell said that, while the battle for better recognition continued, “the aged-care workforce is rapidly growing in Australia”.

Ms Jones said that, while the union complained of under-staffing, there was an influx of new carers: “Younger employees have found an interest in the field and are interested in career progression.”

She said it was important to match the workforce to the aged-care population. Due to “privatisation of the sector” there had been a shift away from a service to a business model, which “tends to come with a profitmaking concern”.

Updated lifestyle activities and an improved amenities in aged-care facilities would help relieve the “psychologically fraught environment”, a trend Ms Jones has seen at Bupa Croydon which boasts its own ‘lifestyle team’.

Ms Russell, the former health-department executive, emphasised the “requirement for workers to provide extensive care for the growing elderly population” but warned that “a lack of adequate remuneration will lead to a loss of faith in the sector”.