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Will aged care workers finally get the better wages and conditions they deserve?

Wendy Taylor

November 6, 2020

In late October Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality & Safety published their Final Submissions for consideration by Commissioners Briggs AO and Pagone QC in the final Royal Commission report due in early 2021. Counsel Assisting’s submissions provide the most in-depth and thorough examination of Australia’s aged care system ever undertaken. This is no exaggeration. They have dug broad and deep. They have scrutinised relevant facets of a flawed system from the process when people access aged care services when they first need them to the support older people receive, or don’t receive, in their finals days of life. Structures, systems, funding, and policies have all come under the microscope. The result? The Counsel Assisting’s summary report calls for sweeping reform of the aged care sector, contained in the 124 recommendations

There are many notable elements in this refreshingly frank and direct report. Significantly, home care finally gets the attention it warrants. It’s long been the less visible poor cousin to residential care in the aged care sector. But not in this report. Even more notable, the Counsel Assisting’s team have shown a dogged determination to resolve an issue at the core of quality and safety: the pay and conditions for aged care workers. Perhaps, unsurprisingly given how COVID-19 illuminated the ramifications of low pay, poor working conditions and often fragmented schedules on care for older Australians.

Other investigations into aged care, and there’s been many over the past decade, have typically concluded with genuine but predictable statements around the need to address low wages and poor conditions in aged care. However, this time Counsel Assisting and the Royal Commission team has closely examined how industrial and policy mechanisms might finally be harnessed to achieve decent work in the sector. Early on, the Royal Commission established many key issues for workers and for a national workforce strategy  (See Chapter 4 Workforce Matters in their Interim Report). Here Counsel Assisting sets about answering the more challenging question around ‘how’ to address these issues. How can you achieve and enforce higher wages and more reasonable conditions for frontline workers across a fragmented sector? How can aged care workers achieve pay parity with other workers doing similar roles in the health sector?  How can you ensure aged care service providers will spend any new funding allocated for workers’ wages on workers’ wages? Counsel Assisting’s Recommendations 41 and 42 provide answers to the first questions.

The Counsel Assisting’s submission drew on available, mainly academic, experts to understand the handful of mechanisms available to improve pay and conditions, decide the best options and then map out what needs to happen and who needs to work together to make it happen. Five full pages of Counsel Assisting’s submission (pp 198-202) are devoted to setting out both industrial and political pathways to achieving aged care workers’ legal right to improved wages.  One of the key recommendations is  for employers, unions, and the Australian government (as the principal funder) to jointly apply to the Fair Work Commission to vary the wage rates in the three aged care awards to reflect the actual work value of aged care work and ensure equal remuneration for workers.

There are many more steps before aged care workers finally receive the pay and conditions commensurate with the skilled and essential work they perform. The Commissioners must take up Counsel Assisting’s recommendations on workforce matters in their Final Report. Then the Australian government will need to accept and act on the Royal Commissions’ recommendations. Counsel Assisting’s admits that the process to achieve this sector-wide pay increase is far from simple, nor is success guaranteed. However, placing a clear industrial and political pathway to this end on the policy agenda is a huge leap in the right direction. COVID-19 has lifted the profile of aged care workers and the valuable work that they do. They are now recognised as essential workers and action to improve their pay and conditions will receive widespread community support.

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