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Workers unite for aged care reform

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and leaders from three of its affiliated unions banded together on Monday to call for a reform package for the beleaguered aged care sector to be adopted, ratified and legislated in favour of, to the Morrison government for anytime in the near future.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), Health Services Union (HSU), and the United Workers Union (UWU), each of whom have contacts and vested interests within the aged care sector, all spoke out to respond to the public’s outcries for reform within the sector under the greater medical community.

“We need a renewed commitment to our older Australians,” said a policy document jointly put together by the three unions and the ACTU.

ACTU President Michele O’Neil, in saying that the system was broken and in dire need of reform, pinpointed the heart of the problems being laid not just at the privatisation of the sector under the John Howard-led LNP government’s decisions, but at the decay that it has caused, and the casualisation of the sector which has resulted from it.

“In order to create a system which gives older Australians quality care, respect and dignity we need to protect the rights of the working people who care for them,” O’Neil said.

“Minimum staffing levels and a regulated mix of skills on every shift in every facility is essential for improving the quality of care delivered to older Australians.

“The pandemic has shown us that insecure and undervalued work leaves workers unable to provide the quality of care that older Australians should be able to expect,” added O’Neil.

The policy document summarised the essential changes that the unions are looking for accordingly:

  • Mandated minimum staffing levels and required mix of skills and qualifications in every residential facility, over every shift
  • Transparency and accountability for Morrison government funding
  • Mandated training requirements (including infection control and ongoing professional development) accessible to all staff and paid by employer
  • Government funding is required to be increased, linked to the provision of care and the direct employment of permanent staff with decent pay and enough hours to live on.

The unions have also been quite critical of the Aged Care Royal Commission, whose findings and conclusions are only half-finished. However, the ones that have been made public as of October 2019 have not been implemented.

“The neglect that we have found in this Royal Commission, to date, is far from the best that can be done. Rather, it is a sad and shocking system that diminishes Australia as a nation,” concluded the work of Richard Tracey and Lynelle Briggs, co-commissioners into the Royal Commission on Aged Care.

And nearly 12 months and one COVID-19 pandemic later, it continues to be run that way, according to the ANMF, who mince no words in calling it out for the fiasco which they observe.

“Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and as exposed by the Aged Care Royal Commission, chronic and widespread understaffing across the aged care system had created unsafe environments for both workers and those they cared for. The pandemic has now revealed just how dangerous understaffing is, with tragic consequences for far too many older Australians and their families,” said Annie Butler, the federal secretary of the ANMF.

“Now, more than ever before, the pandemic and its devastating effects in aged care, have demonstrated that mandating minimum staffing levels must be an urgent priority, as part of any lasting reforms of the sector. If that doesn’t happen, safe, quality care cannot be guaranteed and the pain and suffering of elderly Australians will go on.

“It’s time to make changes and prevent further suffering and neglect,” Butler added.

And for that to happen, and to attract a better quality of workers into the aged care sector, proper funding is required, according to Gerard Hayes, the president of the HSU.

“A properly and transparently funded aged care sector will lead to better pay and conditions for all aged care workers – only this will ensure the high-quality care that all older Australians deserve,” said Hayes.

“This is an aged care crisis that the Federal Government talks about but doesn’t take action on.

“It’s time to get this right for older Australians, their loved ones, and the workers,” Hayes added.

And yet, greater intangible effects beyond dollars and wages have come into play as a result of what’s been exploited during the pandemic.

As it currently stands, low staffing numbers have caused situations where workers are having to choose between critical tasks, leading to the lowering of self-esteem and morale levels of its workforce, alleges Carolyn Smith, the director for aged care within the UWU.

“Our members tell us every day they are forced to make the choice between completing their tasks or properly looking after those they care for,” said Smith.

“They tell us the system is so broken and so understaffed their timetables don’t allow them the simple humanity of pausing to have a chat with people as they prepare their shower.

“The pressures on aged care staff leaves our members demoralised and burnt out, and helps explain why Australia has one of the world’s worst staff retention rates in aged care,” Smith added.

Moreover, O’Neil and the ACTU have called for, in addition to their reform dot-points and explanations around them, an end to the casualisation and privatisation within the aged care sector.

And all in the name of putting older peoples’ health and well-being ahead of profits.

“We need to ensure that one job is enough for any worker in aged care. Aged care workers having to work between multiple facilities has been a huge problem during the pandemic and must end,” said O’Neil.

“Privatisation is a failed experiment in aged care and has failed working people and the people they care for,” she added.

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  1. Alc

    Health and wealth should never be uttered in the same sentence.

  2. pamela curr

    This is a fight which we must win for the sake of the elderly needing care and for our own moral humanity. I congratulate the unions for wading into this minefield. They will need strength and courage because powerful snouts are in this trough, so powerful that they have been able to ignore a weak Royal commission and continue their money making abuse. The pandemic is the pandora’s box opened in full view. The death toll shocks and grieves but it can be smoothed over by charalatans if we let them. The inadequacy of the staffing is there for all to see. The pressure on underpaid casualised short term powerless workers to keep quiet must end.

    The Unions have correctly identified four essential areas for change which need to be enshrined in law. No Aged Care Facility should be funded without providing evidence of compliance. Enough pussyfooting around wealthy powerful privatised aged care lobbyists. Their nasty game is over.

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