Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Statements by Senators
Today I rise to speak about aged care. I particularly want to focus my remarks today on the aged-care workforce. I say at the beginning that, as an organiser with my union, the United Workers Union, I initially started out as an organiser in aged care. For most of the care homes in Western Australia that I visited—even though that was a long time ago now—most of the employers are still the same. There's a stark difference between what's going on now and what was going on when I was organising aged-care workers.
Yesterday, I had a Zoom meeting with aged-care workers right across Australia—proud members of the United Workers Union. I spoke to Delia, Tracey, Donna, Evia, Emma and a male I'm going to refer to as 'Joe' because using his real name would disclose to his employer something he's doing which is frowned upon. These are workers who absolutely care about the job they do. Up until the COVID pandemic, it's fair to say that these workers were overlooked. They did their jobs. They're low-paid workers. They work part time. They've got a real challenge in the work they do, but they do care for the residents that they're asked to care for. Many aged-care workers have told me that, sadly, they're the last person some aged-care residents speak to before they pass away. I've heard my good friend Jude Clarke in WA describe residents dying in her arms, because family members are not there or are aged themselves. Certainly during COVID that was much more difficult, when many families could not visit their loved ones in aged care.
So these workers are really dedicated, but they are really lowly paid. Even when I was organising in the sector many years ago, it was common for aged-care workers to work two jobs. The most you can earn as an aged-care worker is $25 an hour—$25 an hour to do the work that they do. If you work in food services or in cleaning, you'll earn less than that. Most of them rely on weekend penalties. But none of the workers I spoke to yesterday, including the worker who works full time, earnt enough to survive on—not one of them—because even if you work full time you will earn less than $1,000 a week, which is about $300 a week below what Australians describe as the median average for what people earn in this country, so they are way below what most workers would expect to be paid.
But pay is not their No. 1 concern, surprisingly—and, from my perspective, sadly. They're really worried about the parlous state of aged care, and they have five demands that they've made. The first one is that they want more funding, but they want to see that funding directed to caring and not to profits. As most in this Senate would be aware, aged care in this country is predominantly run for a profit. There are community and church groups involved in aged care, but the vast majority of homes in our country are run for profit. The workers want mandated staffing, staffing that the employer has to put in to ensure quality care. Surely there's no-one in this place who would deny that. They do want a decent wage. It's not enough to say, as some have now been saying, 'Let's make those full-time jobs,' because a full-time job for an aged-care worker on $23 to $25 an hour does not provide a living wage. It is still not enough. They want to be able to do just one job, and they want a voice for fairness: they want their delegates and their union to be recognised by the employers. These are not massive or radical asks. They are pretty decent asks.
What we've seen during the pandemic, sadly, is a very high number of deaths in aged care in Australia. I know that the government likes to say, 'Oh, in comparison to what's happened elsewhere in the world, our deaths are low,' but I find that a hollow statement. Anyone who lost a loved one in this country would be insulted by that comment, because a death is the loss of someone who is loved by a whole range of people. There were unacceptably high numbers of aged-care residents who passed away, and we seem to have, in the Morrison government and, indeed, the minister, not much caring going on.
What came to be highlighted for these workers is that they work two jobs. Some of them work three jobs. Certainly all of the people I spoke to yesterday, bar one, work additional jobs. The person I'll refer to as Joe has four children to support. He works as a cleaner in an aged-care facility. In the morning he also does school cleaning, and in the afternoon he does school cleaning, so it's school cleaning morning and afternoon and cleaning in an aged-care facility in the middle of the day. That's been frowned upon by most, and he's not being honest with his employer, but if Joe doesn't do that he can't make enough money. He barely makes enough money now to survive in his family with his four children. So there is no point in criticising aged-care workers for having more than one job. They have to do additional work to make ends meet. There is no point in saying, 'Well, we'll give them full-time hours,' because it's still not enough when you're only earning $23 an hour.
We saw that really mean gesture earlier in the year from the Morrison government when people stood up and said, 'We're going to pay a supplement to all aged-care workers,' and, when the rubber hit the road, that supplement was paid only to the caring staff. So, of the workers I spoke to yesterday, two would have got the supplement and the rest—including Joe, who works two jobs to make ends meet—would not have got that supplement.
So it is time for the Morrison government to seriously look at the wages of aged-care workers and to have a minister who actually cares and commits to doing something proper about the parlous state of aged care and the disgraceful rate of pay for committed workers, who are risking their lives at the moment in those environments, and to raising their wages to a decent wage—not a fantastic wage. They're just asking for a decent wage. When the maximum you can earn is $25 an hour, that is not a decent wage, and it's time the Morrison government recognised that.