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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Q&A: Federal Senator Jess Walsh charts a way out of the aged care crisis with quality jobs, better pay and more workers

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Senator Jess Walsh is big on respect and inclusion. She’s also passionate about helping people build a strong voice at work, in the community and with government.

Now serving as an ALP senator for Victoria since 2019, she was previously the Victorian Secretary for United Voice (now merged with United Workers Union) for more than ten years, representing aged care workers, cleaners, ambos, hospitality workers and many others.

As the election season begins, and the aged care crisis intensifies, the industry is imploring Government for tangible solutions.

Aged Care News journalist BIANCA ROBERTS sat down with Senator Walsh to discuss just how a Labor government might provide hope for a workforce that is overwhelmed, exhausted and heartbroken…

Good morning Senator, thanks so much for joining us today. To begin, I’d love to hear a bit about your work and research background and how this inspired your entrance to politics and, in particular, your desire to campaign on behalf everyday workers.

When I was in my 20s, I moved to the US and did a masters and a PhD degree over there, and I worked in a couple of policy centres as well.

My focus was on the world of work, in particular, the decline of manufacturing jobs in the US and the rise of low-paid service jobs, including jobs in the care sector.

I was looking at the consequences of low pay and insecurity on people’s lives, and their ability to support themselves, and their families, and then also looking at the broader consequences of that really, for our society in our economy.

Because if we’re going to lose good paying, secure jobs and replace them with low paid, insecure jobs, then that’s going to have far reaching effects. It’s going to create groups of people who are doing OK and large groups of people who are just not.

So, I was concerned about that, during my research.

… that was a moment in time for me where I thought, ‘I want to stand with them, and if I can use the benefits of my skills to help advocate for low paid workers, then that’s what I want to do’.

Senator Jess Walsh

Along the way, I got involved in some of the union campaigns over there that workers were waging to try to improve those low-paid service jobs.

And somewhere in there, I found myself standing alongside groups of workers who really had absolutely nothing, but were willing to stand up and fight for everything.

And that was a moment in time for me where I thought, ‘I want to stand with them, and if I can use the benefits of my skills to help advocate for low paid workers, then that’s what I want to do’.

Through completing your PhD, did you gain and key insights that are applicable to policy creation in this area?

It was less policy focused…  it was a bit more focused on how these jobs were growing, what the struggles were that people faced, in working in them. And critically, for me, in my story of how I ended up here, as a researcher, I figured out along the way that the best way for us to improve these jobs is for those workers to have a voice, for them to be able to join together in their unions, and to be able to stand up effectively for better pay, and more secure jobs. And that’s what made me switch focus from doing research to going to work in the union movement to put that insight into practice

And so when I finished my PhD, I went to work with United Voice and met all sorts of people who don’t have very much and are pretty low paid: lots of women workers, people from all over the world who’ve come to this country for a better life.

And I think at the very least, this country needs to provide people who do absolutely essential work [with] good, secure jobs that they can count on.

Aged care consumers and advocates are telling us constantly “enough talk, we want real action, now.” What tangible reforms are/will you be pushing for to remedy the aged care crisis?

Well, advocates are right to be fed up: there’s been too many reports and not enough action.

I think, fundamentally, that the crisis in aged care is a workforce crisis and it starts and ends with the quality of jobs in aged care.

If you talk to aged care workers, you’re going to be talking to people who absolutely love their jobs, but they’re just not paid enough to stay in them…

… we need more carers, we need carers who have more time in the day to do their work and, in order to achieve that, we have to address the fact that the workers are chronically low paid, and that they’re suffering with irregular hours and insecure work.

Senator Walsh

You’re going to be talking to people who are basically running around trying to make decisions between who to care for: someone who’s on the floor, someone who’s ringing an alarm bell somewhere else, somebody else who just needs basic care and attention.

And that’s because they just don’t have enough care time. And there are not enough of them to do the work. And so, of course, the quality crisis is really a workforce crisis.

So the solutions are that we need more carers, we need carers who have more time in the day to do their work and, in order to achieve that, we have to address the fact that the workers are chronically low paid, and that they’re suffering with irregular hours and insecure work.

Senator Walsh says workers are basically running around trying to make decisions between who to care for: someone who’s on the floor, someone who’s ringing an alarm bell somewhere else, somebody else who just needs basic care and attention. “The quality crisis is really a workforce crisis,” she says.

So, if we’re going to attract the hundreds of thousands more aged care workers that we need over the next decades, we’re going to have to pay them more; we’re going to have to give them more secure jobs; and we’re also going to have to give them more care time with their residents, as recommended by the royal commission.

Because if they’re going into work and experiencing this distress that they experience on a daily basis, where they’re going home at night in tears because they weren’t able to provide the care that they wanted… then they’re not going to stay in the job, and we’re not going to achieve the continuity of care that we need.

Immediately, we can support the aged care workers claim for a pay rise in their work value case – and that’s something that the Morrison Government has failed to do, to turn up to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) and say, ‘as a government, we support this’.

Labor has said that, in government, we would go to the FWC, and we would say, ‘we support better wages for the aged care work force’.

Is Labor’s position to explicitly support, as a minimum, a $5 per hour raise, as requested by the Health Services Union? Or just ‘a pay rise in general’, at this stage?

We’ve said that we would go to Fair Work and support a pay rise, and let them know, if we were in government, that we would back in the decision of the FWC to grant that pay rise.

We’ve also said that we would support the care time recommendations of the royal commission – and the skills mix recommendations of the Royal Commission, as well.

The rationale implied by the Morrison Government, in refusing to support the pending FWC case, is that the pay-rise is financially untenable: either too expensive for private, aged-care businesses to absorb, or, in the case of the public system, too much of a tax burden on private citizens. How would you respond to those concerns?

I think budgets are a matter of priorities, and we have to prioritise care for our most vulnerable elders.

… it’s a matter of priorities, and we need to prioritise our most fundamental obligation to our elders… there are no targeting and transparency measures that are doing the job of tracking where funding goes.

Senator Walsh

So I would say to people who say that we can’t afford it, number one: we can’t afford to let our elders stay in this poor quality care any longer.

Number two: it’s a matter of priorities, and we need to prioritise our most fundamental obligation to our elders.

And number three:  there is already a lot of funding that goes into aged care, but there are no targeting and transparency measures that are doing the job of tracking where that funding goes.

There was, I think, $10 billion of extra funding put in by the Morrison Government after the royal commission, but it wasn’t tied to anything…

If government is giving taxpayer dollars, we have to be absolutely sure that it’s going where it where it needs to go: into wages, and also into the other basics that we’ve seen people are missing out on in aged care, for example; quality, nutritious food.

So, it would not be enough to just find extra money. What actually has to happen, particularly in the model of private aged care that we operate under in Australia, is that we have to be very strong and clear about where that money should go, and that it needs to go into the workforce as a priority.

In terms of expanding workforce numbers, should new workers be predominately Australian citizens, migrant workers, or a mix of both?

I think that the reason why we need to rely on temporary migration in aged care, is because we haven’t made a long term commitment to a well-paid, secure, skilled workforce. So I think that the priority should be on doing that.

And what the mix is that then might result, in terms of Australian-born people or migrants, to me, is less important.

… what is absolutely critical, is that the wages need to be higher; the jobs need to be more secure. When people go to work every day, they need to know that they have enough time to provide the care that they want to.

Senator Walsh

We need people who want to deliver quality care. Those people could be born here; they could be temporary migrants.

But, what is absolutely critical, is that the wages need to be higher; the jobs need to be more secure. When people go to work every day, they need to know that they have enough time to provide the care that they want to.

How did you find the Senate Select Committee on Job Security and what policy solutions are appropriate for the issue of casualisation and its flow on effects for the financial security of workers?

Even the providers came to the inquiry, and said, ‘we understand that we have a business model that is unsustainable; we have a business model that is based on low pay; we have a business model that is based on these short term, variable hour contracts’.

We found that 80 per cent of the workforce is hired on as little as eight hours a week, and then rostered up and down to meet the needs of the providers, but that doesn’t meet the needs of the workforce for security… That was one of the biggest and most shocking findings, really.

… it is shocking that we are running our aged care system, in a wealthy country like Australia, on that sort of model, but also that the workforce, the advocates, the academics, and the providers, all agree that it’s a business model that needs to change.

Senator Walsh

And we heard stories like that of Cherie, who’s an aged care worker from Queensland. She talked to us about how she’s on a minimum hours contract. She generally gets more, but because all she can show real estate agents and banks is her actual, eight-hour contract, she’s unable to get a lease; she’s unable to buy a house; she lives in a caravan park.

So I think, overall, it was shocking that we are running our aged care system, in a wealthy country like Australia, on that sort of model, but also that the workforce, the advocates, the academics, and the providers, all agree that it’s a business model that needs to change.

So, fundamentally, I think our job in government would be to bring everyone together on solutions – unions, the providers, the advocates, the academics – and figure out how to build more secure jobs.

Specifically, what we said in the job security enquiries is that low pay is a big form of job insecurity, and we reiterated the call to support the [FWC] work value case.

We also said that, because there’s such a clear link between low wages and insecurity and the quality of care, that the quality rating system should incorporate information about whether providers are providing job security, so that they should be required to provide secure jobs.

Is there any final comment you’d like to make?

In aged care, as part of my time with the union, I met amazing women, people like Jude Clarke, who I often think of when I go about my work here in the parliament.

She’s an aged care worker of over 40 years’ experience, and she’s a person who desperately wants to see change in aged care jobs, so that she can provide quality care for the residents that she cares about so much. She’s been speaking up for a really long time.

… there’s a generation of people who’ve been fighting for change, and we shouldn’t leave that to the next generation to try and figure it out. We need to fix the problems in this generation.

Senator Walsh

And one of the things I’d like to do in my time in parliament is make sure that when she retires, we’ve all collectively done something to make aged care jobs better and much more sustainable, and therefore improve the quality of care for residents as well.

I just feel that this aged care crisis has been going on for too long.

We have too many people who’ve been speaking out, for too long;  we have too many reports; we have a dedicated workforce, many of whom are close to retirement – people like Jude, who I think about almost every day around this parliament.

And I think there’s a generation of people who’ve been fighting for change, and we shouldn’t leave that to the next generation to try and figure it out. We need to fix the problems in this generation.

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