Sunday, September 28, 2014

Aged care workers demand a better deal for themselves and the residents


In the last week of September, aged care sector nurses resolved to cease work at a Warnambool aged care facility due to the crisis state of the sector, particularly in relation to the suitability of care of residents whose mental condition caused them to act violently towards staff. The nurses had made about 200 formal complaints about violence towards staff by one particular resident but the management of the private for-profit aged care did not resolve the problem. Nurses demanded removal of the resident from the facility or face a cessation of work by nurses on health and safety grounds.

For any staff in the aged care sector to collectively resolve to stop work is extremely rare and indicative of the crisis in the aged care sector faced by both residents and staff.

The aged care system is funded in such a way that owners of a facility may be reluctant to move a violent resident because that resident has paid a substantial amount of money (up to $550,000)on entry to the facility and the owner profits from the interest on this resident bond money. Or the owner knows that there is nowhere else for the resident to go because staffing levels and special needs trained staff are so inadequate in the  aged care sector, due to inadequate government funding and the profit motive being the driving force in a growing privately owned proportion of the sector

Government Funding Cuts

The level of care for residents with special needs received a recent setback when the Abbott Government cut the ‘Dementia Supplement’ payment of about $18 per resident per day. The implications of this seemingly small budget cut by the government were brought home to me the other day when I visited an aged care place to meet some staff. They were not nurses but Carers, the people who do most of the ‘hands on’ care duties such as toileting, showering, making beds, feeding of residents. One of them said she was on light duties. A resident with dementia had grabbed her by the hand and when she tried to withdraw from his grasp, he twisted her arm causing severe ligament and shoulder damage. She was working by herself in a single resident room and by the time other staff heard her calls for help the damage had been done. The resident had no idea that he was inflicting pain and no idea of his own personal strength. As with most dementia residents, their behaviour becomes more unpredictable as their condition advances. Yet staffing levels determined by the owners do not increase  to take account of residents’ changing needs and the health and safety needs of the staff.

Solidarity of Aged Care Staff  

What heartened me about this situation was the high level of support from other staff for their injured co-Carer. They asked what else they could do to accommodate her light duties and they discussed what they could do as a group to ensure adequate staffing levels of care for residents with deteriorating mental conditions. They discussed how each other was coping with the demands of the job generally. They made suggestions as to what to do to overcome specific problems caused by short staffing and high workloads. Their conversation was one of caring for each other and residents in a very difficult and financially unrewarding occupation.

As they moved away to resume the last part of their shifts or in some cases clock off after  a ‘short shift’, I wondered how long it would be before they too took the ‘road less travelled by’ and like the Warnambool nurses, took action – in their case for more staffing.  

Super-exploitation of migrant workers in the hotel industry


Super exploitation of migrant workers in Australia is nothing new in Australia. It has existed almost as long as the super exploitation of Indigenous people in Australia. All workers under capitalism are exploited in that they sell their labour power and create surplus value for the capitalist from which profit is derived. Through collective struggle since 1788, workers in Australia have won minimum standards enshrined in the capitalists’ industrial laws to prevent being thrown in to a state which Marx called “miserable wretches”. However alongside these minimum standards of engagement by the capitalists, there have been many instances of capitalists ignoring their own laws and ‘super exploiting’ workers. Migrant workers in particular are often the victims of this.

The other day I met some Nepalese migrants who worked cleaning rooms in a large multinational owned hotel. Some were overseas students, some were partners of overseas students. Their working goal in Australia is to work continuously for two years to improve their chances of a successful application for permanent residency status. They said they had checked to find out that they were being paid the minimum award rate of about $18 per hour. The problem was that they were only paid for four hours a day and the work they had to do took eight hours!  They were expected to clean and tidy 16 rooms in four hours, one room per 15 minutes! They were effectively working for $9 per hour!

On a few occasions some of them stopped working at the four hour mark and went home, rather than working in unpaid time. However the company they worked for, a large overseas owned labour hire firm, deducted a couple of hours pay from their pay packet for not cleaning all the rooms. So even though they worked four hours on these days, they were paid less than four hours for not completing all the work. They were told by the manager they had to finish the work in four hours, that was the job. The industry standard, itself too demanding, is half an hour cleaning time per room.

Modern Forms Of Slavery Still Exist Right Here In Australia

When I heard their story, I thought that this was outrageous, but nothing new in the hotel industry.

What they then told me was even more outrageous. In fact, a modern form of slavery.

They said their supervisor and some other hotel workers they knew were in Australia on what were called “sponsorships”. I asked them what did that mean?

They said the “sponsors” are business people who agree to provide work for a new migrant worker for two years, provided the new migrant pays the sponsor an amount of money equivalent to the wages being performed for the sponsor. Once the money is paid to the sponsor in advance of work performed, the sponsor then pays back the money to the worker in the form of a wage, including a gross and net pay after tax. So on the surface, it looks like a normal capitalist–wage labour relationship, but in fact the worker gets nothing, accept two years guaranteed ‘employment’ and a hoped for ‘passport’ to permanent residency.

What does such a migrant worker live on if their ‘wage’ is paid back in full to the boss or so-called ‘sponsor’?

The Nepalese people I met said that these workers have to work a second job, usually cash in hand, in order to survive.

They said they wanted to get out of their situation but knew that the odds are stacked against them. With great courage, they said they were going to contact the relevant union as a first step to improving their situation.