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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Unions, workers and advocates united in dissatisfaction a year on from royal commission

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Representatives from the United Workers Union (UWU) and the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), alongside a range of aged care workers and advocates, gathered online today to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety (RC) final report – and they found little cause for celebration.

The unanimous verdict was that the Federal Government has made insufficient progress on implementing RC recommendations, with the catchphrase “too little, too late”.

Key recommendations such as minimum care hours of 200 minutes per day, per resident; an increase to the minimum wage of aged care workers; and solutions to workforce shortages, only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, were the top grievances cited by the union.

“The Government has ignored these key royal commission recommendations,” Natalie Dabarera from UWU, said.

Three aged care workers told their stories, expressing the adversity they faced on the ground, over the last year.

Grace (surname and location withheld) said that she has been working 12 hour shifts, six days a week, and is barely coping.

“The past 12 months have been difficult, especially during the outbreak.

“We were already struggling with staffing… but with COVID… it’s made it so much worse,” Grace said.

“Imagine working 12 hour shifts… feeling isolated in a way, in a little bubble… the management are more concerned about covering the 12 hour shift than your mental wellbeing… we’ve been neglected…”

Usually optimistic, the crisis on the ground has pushed her to breaking point.

“I like to see the light in the darkest areas… but during those times, it’s been really, really hard, to a point where I’ve been very emotional… starting to let go of myself in a way and feeling negative.

“So many residents [are] needing care, but I’m the only one there…”

She said that with such challenging conditions and low pay, there is no rational reason for her still being there, but she does it because her heart is so dedicated to the job.  

“I’m not there for the pay… I want to be there to give them some sunshine and some happiness. I want to give them my best.”

From left to right, top to bottom: Carolyn Smith, aged care director at UWU; Professor Joseph Ibrahim, Monash University; Grace, a residential aged care worker; Irene, a registered nurse; and Theresa, a home care worker.

Tasmanian registered nurse Irene is in a similar position: a dedicated aged care nurse for more than 30 years, she is haunted by the fact she has no capacity to provide adequate care.

“I like to think I’m going in there making a difference, but right now we’re falling short… we feel like we are drowning,” Irene said.

She implored the Government to take the reforms process seriously.

“We’re talking about human life here, human rights… we’re letting down Australians.”

Theresa brought to the panel a reminder of the difficulties faced by the home care workforce, many of whom struggled to make ends meet during the COVID pandemic.

The fear of COVID, and insufficient provision of PPE and other harm mitigation strategies, has caused many home-care clients to cancel sessions, workers are floundering, with many casuals receiving no hours for weeks on end.

“Our hours are already irregular and insecure, [but because of COVID] you may sit around with your phone in your hand and wait all day, for nothing,” Theresa said.

“Just like Irene and Grace, I am highly dedicated to my clients…. I adore my clients and they are the only reason I am still here.”

Professor Joseph Ibrahim, practicing senior specialist in geriatric medicine and professor at Monash University’s department of forensic medicine and head of the Health Law and Ageing Research Unit, said that after decades of campaigning from all angles available to him- education, research, providing evidence at the RC and media appearances – he is astounded at the Government’s inaction.

“None of it has changed aged care,” he lamented.

“No one was compensated for the poor care [revealed by the RC]; no one was held accountable, either in a regulatory or a legal sense.”

“The system is in more trouble now than it was before the royal commission.”

He suggested that forensic accounting must be undertaken to establish where taxpayer money has been going, and why it has chronically failed to provide basic levels of care.

“As taxpayers we are perfectly able to hold government to account on how that money is being spent and why it is not going to residents.

“Where is the money going? Can someone honestly tell us where our $14 billion of taxpaying money is going every year?”

Clare O’Neill, Labor MP and shadow minister for aged care, who also attended, reiterated the importance of implementing long-term retention strategies within the aged care workforce, including increases to the minimum wage and manageable staff-to-resident ratios.

“That’s a basic thing; that’s a matter of justice, but it’s a pragmatic thing to.

“We need more aged workers… but they are leaving the sector in droves.

“So we’ve got to fix the situation quickly, as we have an ageing population.”

Meanwhile, Richard Colbeck, minister for aged care and seniors Australians, did not take up an invitation to attend the event, nor issued a formal apology or statement in response to the union.

In a joint statement issued February 25, ministers Colbeck and Hunt painted a picture contrary to the experiences of those at the coalface.

“We responded to the recommendations and are now implementing this once-in-a-generation reform that puts senior Australians first,” Hunt said. 

He said the establishment of the National Aged Care Advisory Group and the Council of Elders was another important step to ensure tangible outcomes and support for the implementation of the reforms.

“The continued implementation of the reforms are now guided by these two important groups of representatives to ensure each measure that is introduced continues to meet the needs and expectations of senior Australians, families, carers and the wider community,”

Ibrahim cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Council alone, noting that it comprised “the same faces”, with minimal representation from the workforce.

The ministers’ statement highlighted new policies such as the $10 per resident per day increase to food budgets in residential aged care facilities, increased funding for home care packages that has resulted in a 25 per cent increase in uptake since the end of 2020, and a 29 per cent waiting list reduction.

The ministers furthermore highlighted a number of items from The Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Royal Commission Response Bill .2, including:

  • The introduction of a new funding model for aged care, the Australian National Aged Care Classification (AN-ACC), in force from October 1, 2022.
  • A registration scheme which will provide a nationally consistent pre-employment screening for aged care workers of approved providers to replace existing police checking obligations; and
  • An expansion of the Serious Incident Response Scheme to home and flexible care from July 1, 2022.

But these measures have not been met with resounding praise from advocates and workers in the industry.

The AN-ACC funding model has been slammed by allied health workers, feared a trigger for redundancies, with RACF managers preferencing cheaper forms of allied health, such a lifestyle workers, over more expensive practitioners such physiotherapists.

Ibrahim has cited concerns about reliance on the current SIRS, however, noting that it does little to prevent the epidemic of sexual assault within residential aged care.

To find out more about the United Workers’ Union campaign to improve conditions for aged care workers, follow this link or, alternatively, follow their Facebook or Twitter pages.

The union encourages all social media posts to be tagged with #agedcarecrisis and #changeagedcare.

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