Tony Abbott has quietly rushed to attack the wages of aged care workers and childcare workers. Predominantly women, they are some of the lowest paid in the country.

The Coalition plans to remove a $1.2 billion agreement with the aged care sector reached by the previous Labor government and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), the union that covers workers in aged care homes.

The money was to be a direct subsidy to workers’ wages, and governed by a union Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA).

Before parliament even sits, the government has also suspended payments from the $300 million Early Years Quality Fund. This fund was designed to cover wage increases for some childcare workers.

As ACTU President Ged Kearney said after Abbott’s announcements, “[These] industries are largely staffed by women. Aged and childcare workers do a very tough job and are paid very little.”
The attack on the aged care agreement is also about the Abbott government, “challenging one of the union movement’s strongholds”, as the Australian Financial Review put it, because the deal may have helped the ANMF recruit members.

Legislation is not necessary for the cuts, which were introduced by regulation; the Coalition can repeal them simply by passing a disallowance motion in the House of Representatives within 15 days of its first sitting.

The aged care money will go back into the general pool of funding provided by the government for aged care centres, but as Ged Kearney explains, “previously, money allocated to the aged care sector hasn’t flowed through to workers.”

Over the last three years, funding for aged care providers has increased by 22 per cent, but salaries have only risen by 4 and 5 per cent a year, according to Labor Senator Jacinta Collins.
Already, aged care companies are taking the cue to renege on wage agreements. The ANMF reports that, “One major employer with 3600 workers, has cut its pay offer by 2.75 per cent in the wake of the change of government and uncertainty over future funding. Another with 800 workers, has withdrawn the full 3.5 per cent to have been funded by the supplement.”

The Coalition also wants to loosen regulation for the scandal-hit sector, signalling they will “cut red tape” by “simplifying administration processes” and introducing an “independent review process”.
Less oversight will make conditions worse for workers and patients. The system already creates a motivation for the private providers to extract as much government money as possible, while spending as little as possible on staff and the quality of care.

Childcare workers can earn as little as $16 an hour (that is, the minimum wage). The Early Years Quality Fund was designed to raise that by $3 to $5 an hour, depending on qualifications, for 40 per cent of daycare staff over the next two years. It was already an insufficient measure—the majority of workers would not see an increase, and after two years workers would again be at the mercy of their employer to guarantee the wage rise. Now the promise of any wage rise is off the cards altogether.

The Coalition has also vowed to slow down the implementation of changes that require centres to employ staff with higher qualifications. This is another gift to the childcare industry bosses, who complain about the costs associated—higher qualifications mean employers may need to pay to train workers, and can be obligated to pay better wages.

These nasty cutbacks say everything about who the Abbott government have in their sights. They could be a harbinger of things to come—if they are allowed to get away with it.

By Amy Thomas

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