Tuesday, 10 September 2019
Today is the Health Services Union's second annual Thank You for Working in Aged Care Day, a day to give thanks to and recognise the invaluable work of almost 200,000 people who work in the aged-care sector across Australia. Caring for our older Australians is difficult, critically important and often undervalued work. Our aged-care workers are some of the most generous, patient, thoughtful and skilled workers we have.
Last week, I met with Marion and Michelle, two aged-care workers from Western Sydney who provide home and residential care. Workers like Marion and Michelle actually represent the typical union member. The average union member is now a woman over the age of 40 who works in aged care. While this government demonises unions, they forgot to mention that it is workers like Michelle and Marion who will suffer if their union is fighting ongoing deregistration not because the union has broken the law but because powerful interests will bury them in red tape if the ensuring integrity bill is passed. It'll be ordinary people who will not have a union to fight against wage theft and unfair conditions if its officials are buried in red tape and cannot fight for their members.
This is what is at stake under the punitive so-called ensuring integrity bill that the heartless government wants to inflict on us all. That is why it is important that the stories of aged-care workers like Michelle and Marion be told. They told me over coffee and sandwiches about the beautiful relationships they have built with residents they care for every day, like the resident who enjoys going through the washing basket because it makes them feel like they are out shopping for clothes. They described the passion that drove them into their profession. Their eyes lit up when they described coming home knowing they had made a difference to their residents and their families. Too often, aged-care work goes unacknowledged, so today I want to thank Marion, Michelle and all those working in aged care for their commitment to not just older Australians but all of us.
But not everything is right in the aged-care sector. Michelle and Marion told me of the toll their work takes on them. Marion described the acute physical, mental and emotional demands they meet every day—about coming to work when it sometimes means facing violence and threats of abuse; about what can happen when overworked, understaffed carers understandably struggle to provide the care and dignity their patients deserve; about aged-care workers being responsible for 10 or more patients at a time, moving from crisis to crisis. The burden on these workers is often unimaginable. As they so plainly put to me, the empathy is there but, sadly, the funding is not. Aged-care workers like Marion and Michelle are only provided funding for the face-to-face time with patients, nothing for the necessary tasks of training or preparation. This means they must put in hours and hours of unpaid work to ensure quality of care.
They also told me of their fears. They are worried that aged care has become just a job and not a career and that the low rates of pay and lack of support and training will never attract and retain a highly qualified workforce for the future. Marion told me that her son was shocked to learn how much pay she actually received. Her son is 23 and works in a distribution centre, but, even with his mum's experience and skill, she is paid 50 per cent less than he is. But this doesn't have to be the case, and nor should it be.
As our population ages and more people move into assisted living, with a range of very different care and support needs, Australia must invest in the skills and wellbeing of our aged-care workforce. If we do not, the outlook for all of us is grim. It is hardworking staff at these centres who are leading the way in this fight, calling for the funding necessary to provide quality care to our loved ones as they get older.
We've all been horrified at the stories coming out of the royal commission into aged care—overworked staff left to care for more than 25 people at a time, unable to provide the dignity and decency that older Australians deserve. If we want an aged-care sector that we have no hesitation in sending our family members to, or even ourselves, we need to lift rates of pay, and increase staffing levels and training. There are also the simple things that will mean a world of difference to the quality of care, like the quality of food. A 2017 study found that an average of just $6 per day had been budgeted for food for aged-care residents—less than we spend in our prisons.
Australia needs a sustainable and appropriately funded national aged-care system that guarantees world-leading care for older Australians, a system that pays decent wages—reflecting the skill and care of workers in the aged-care sector and that values their daily contribution to patients, their families and the community. This is why we give thanks to our aged-care workers on this day. Aged care is in all our futures. It's up to us all to make it better.