Report into the aged care sector should be a springboard for action

In late May the Human Rights Commission published a hard-hitting report into equal opportunities in the aged care sector, likening the situation for workers to modern day slavery.

caring countsThe report, Caring Counts: Report of the Inquiry into the Aged Care Workforce, was written by Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor, who gathered evidence from 886 participants over a 12-month period in 2011–2012.  A number of PSA members who work as aged care home support workers took part and made submissions. 

The report highlights the low pay and pay inequity facing thousands of women workers who form the backbone of our aged care sector.  The majority of these workers earn around the minimum wage of between $13-15 an hour for work which requires high levels of skill, patience, compassion, and professionalism, not to mention knowledge and awareness of a wide range of medical and health issues. (See “A day in the life of a PSA home support worker” to get a sense of the day-to-day realities of this profession.*)

Dr McGregor noted in the report’s foreword, “The sense of crisis that surrounds aged care is partly a reflection of our collective knowledge that we are not being fair and that a large group of workers is being discriminated against.  Inaction on pay inequality and inadequate compensation for travel are breaches of fundamental human rights.”

She also said that changes must be made because in less than 10 years New Zealand would need 70 per cent more workers in an industry that turned over a quarter of its staff every year.

One of her key recommendations is that the government has a legal obligation to sort out the pay inequalities that these workers face and that affordability cannot be used as an excuse not to act.  She also boldly urges the government to given an automatic top 10 cabinet spot for the minister responsible for aged care.

The report also raises concerns about the inequity in pay rates that sees care workers in the community, funded by district health boards (DHB) through providers, often paid $3 to $5 an hour less than the caring staff directly employed by a DHB.

PSA national secretary Richard Wagstaff agrees and says, “low pay rates in this sector reflect badly on the value that New Zealand as a whole places on the work of those supporting elderly New Zealanders”.

These issues are also present in the disability sector where home support and residential support have similar issues of paying people according to the level of funding rather than the skill and complexity and responsibility of the work.

The government’s response to the Human Rights Commission report has been to say it can’t afford to address the situation and DHBs will not be given more money to raise the pay of low-paid aged care workers because the government has other priorities in health.

Richard says the government’s attitude is more than disappointing.

“Here we have the government saying it can’t afford to properly fund what is a chronically underfunded sector and bring pay rates up, yet it can happily give high income earners millions of dollars in tax cuts.  It’s about choices,” he says.

The PSA believes that taken as a whole, Dr McGregor’s report represents a challenge to New Zealand society about our values and how we respect, protect and support some of society’s most vulnerable.

Richard says it also provides a great basis for action.

“This report should make us all ask questions about the value we put on caring for our grandparents, our parents, and eventually ourselves. For the government not to act on its recommendations would be irresponsible and given the numbers of people who will be needing care and support in the future, failure to act would also be very short-sighted.”

In the interests of support workers and the elderly, the PSA along with the New Zealand Home Help Association is calling on the government, DHBs, funders, providers, and all unions in the sector to face up to the challenges of the report and take urgent action on its recommendations.

*The PSA represents support workers, coordinators and administration workers within the aged care home support sector and disability sector.


This article is from the June 2012 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.