Better wages, better care: improving the aged care sector

In her submission and evidence to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, RMIT’s Professor Sara Charlesworth urged the Federal Government to address wages and working conditions.


The undervaluing of aged care work in government funding and in employment regulation is contributing to poor work conditions and poor conditions of care for frail, aged service users, Charlesworth argued this week.


An expert in gender, work and regulation and the director of RMIT’s Centre for People, Organisation and Work, Charlesworth’s recommendations included introducing better working time conditions and comprehensive skill classifications tied to wage increases and meaningful career progression.


She said frontline aged care work was also highly gendered, with the historic perception of it as quintessentially ‘women’s work’ reinforced by an overwhelmingly female workforce.


She pointed to the link between unpaid care work and paid care work that has meant aged care work is seen as ‘natural’ and therefore unskilled.


“Gender and gender (in)equality sit at the heart of the poor wages and conditions for frontline aged care workers,” she said.


She said the value of aged care work both within residential care and in-home care was profoundly under-recognised as were the wide-ranging skills required to provide ‘good’ aged care.


“Today aged care service users are older and frailer and have more complex care needs than 20 years ago.”


She argued that this undervaluing was also contributing to insecure employment or income for the growing number of migrants working in aged care in Australia, increasing numbers of whom hold only temporary visas.


Pathways to permanency are limited for aged care workers, as aged care work is considered to be ‘low skilled’.


“What constitutes ‘skill’ in Australian migration regulation intersects directly with the gendered undervaluation of frontline care,” Charlesworth said.


“The current temporary migration pathways for care workers risk producing a frontline migrant care workforce in Australia that is vulnerable to exploitation.”


“There needs to be government and industry investment to improve attraction and retention in the sector through improvements in the wages and conditions of all frontline aged care workers.”


The federal government is the key purchaser of aged care services, making it effectively the lead employer in aged care.


Charlesworth urged the government should commit to resourcing a sustainable aged care system that provides the high-quality services people need alongside decent working conditions for frontline aged care workers.


“We know that job quality directly shapes the quality of care, so providing workers with appropriate remuneration, working time and job security, and the time to provide unrushed care, will benefit those being cared for.”


21 October 2019.