Gordon Campbell on the aged-care settlement

Strange indeed to hear a National Prime Minister not only singing the praises of raising the wages of the lowly paid, but also preaching that this will enable employers to reap future benefits from reduced staff turnover via upskilling their workers and offering them a viable career path.

Wow. Can this really be the same National Party that threw the workforce to the wolves of the free market when it championed the Employment Contracts Act? Can it be the same National Party whose first act after winning the 2008 election was to scrap the pay equity unit within the Labour Department? Similarly, wasn’t it an incoming National government that began its term of office in 1990 by scrapping the Employment Equity Act that had allowed for intersectoral pay comparisons?

Meaning: until yesterday, a National government has always been the sworn enemy of women seeking justice in the workplace, in the face of gender-based pay discrimination.

Yet for all of that… perhaps only a centre-right government could have pulled off the politics of this large pay rise to workers in the aged care, disability care and home support sector. (A Labour government would have been accused of colluding with its union mates, and of recklessly putting the economy at risk for ideological reasons.)

The rationale for the aged care pay rise is already the stuff of legend. Over 90 per cent of the workers in this sector are female. Given the skills, experience and responsibility that the work entails, these workers would have been paid more if they were men. In that respect – and as the courts have now found – the wage scales in this sector have contravened the Equal Pay Act of 1972. To put that another way, workers in this sector are owed about 45 years of back pay. However, there will be no back pay when the new rates of pay kick in as planned from July 1st. (MPs, by contrast, routinely get back pay every year when their income gets increased.)

What turned this particular ship around was the legal challenge launched by Kristine Bartlett, an experienced aged-care worker, who was reportedly being paid only $14.46 an hour after 20 years work at the same rest home. Will other female-intensive occupational sectors now be able to successfully mount similar claims?

Only with great difficulty, it seems. The same government/unions/employers troika that gave birth to this settlement have also produced a set of principles (shortly to be enshrined in legislation) that create a high hurdle for any future claims. Reportedly, one of the features of these new principles is that success will require there to be only a single payer in the market, such that the workers in question cannot shop around for a better deal. In practice, this seems to limit any future gender discrimination claims only to sectors where the government is the sole payer of the wages. Gender-based pay discrimination in the private sector could well sail on untouched, at least initially: even perhaps for some workers in some rest homes. Yesterday’s announcement for instance, affects less than half the workers employed by Ryman Healthcare, which applauded the settlement in these terms:

The wage increase will affect 45 per cent of Ryman’s workforce, the equivalent of just more than 2000 staff members.

“We applaud the government for prioritising aged care. They have recognised the importance of the work that our caregivers do by bringing their rates into line with the public sector,” Ryman Healthcare managing director Simon Challies said. “From a Ryman business perspective, the impact is neutral as the extra funding we receive will go into wages; we will pass it directly on to staff.”

This is a sector in which private sector providers make considerable annual profits, year by year. Last year Ryman recorded a 16% profit level.

This raises two issues (a) why has it fallen on the taxpayer to do all of the heavy lifting on the wages and conditions operant in this sector and (b) what regulatory action, if any, will the National government take to deter private providers from proceeding to gouge any flow-on wage costs out of those rest home residents whose means (and savings) put them above the subsidy threshold? Yesterday, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman conceded that some aged care residents will face sizeable potential cost increases in the wake of yesterday’s announcement. However, the government appears disinclined to manage a soft landing for those thousands of residents who will now be looking down the barrel of cost increases for their care.

Obviously, the aged care settlement is excellent news for the workers who will directly benefit. Briefly, this is what the settlement will entail :

*The proposal features a 5-year set of pay increases linked to experience and qualifications
*It will apply to approximately 55,000 working people in residential aged care, disability support services and home support services.
*From 1 July 2017, existing staff would be paid between $19.00 and $23.50 an hour. Currently these workers earn an average of just over $16.00 an hour, with many on the minimum wage
*By July 2021, there would be an entry level pay rate of $21.50 an hour with a top rate of $27.00.

As mentioned, there will be barriers to applying this precedent to other female-dominated occupations such as retail, and hospitality. Presumably though, the settlement will create a positive ripple effect through the aged care sector and beyond. It will, for example, alter the wage relativities with respect to nursing. Once the new wage rates kick in after July 1st, the new rewards for training and experience in aged care (and related career paths) will make the sector far more attractive to nurses than it currently is, and this should encourage greater two way traffic between nursing and aged care. More immediately, yesterday’s announcement will also boost the arguments for a corresponding pay increase (and fresh career incentives) during the next award negotiation round for nurses.

At a wider level, this settlement is one of the very few areas in the Health portfolio where government policy is (belatedly) preparing the country for the reality of an ageing population, and what this ageing process will mean for the public’s Health funding. To date, the current government has seemed blithely disinterested in the level of unmet need that already exists in Health, and since 2010 it has been steadily reducing the ratio of the nation‘s wealth it devotes to Health funding.)

Too bad that this time as well, the government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the bargaining table. Once it got there though, it has done the right thing by those aged care workers who day after day, carry out some of the most emotionally and physically demanding jobs in the economy, for terrible pay – and mainly because most of them are women. Lets hope that this has been a learning curve for National. Maybe in future it will accept that some public needs are even more important than tax cuts.

King Kendrick

This past weekend belonged to Kendrick Lamar and if you missed his wonderful set at Coachella then…too bad, because the footage has steadily disappeared from view, online. It was spectacular, beautifully paced with key oldies – King Kunte, Swimming Pools Drank etc – that served to underline their continuity with the material on the new album. Plus, the guy is a terrific writer :

Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA…
Immaculate conception
I transform like this, perform like this
Was Yeshua’s new weapon
I don’t contemplate, I meditate, then off your fucking head
This… that put-the-kids-to-bed….

Realness, I just kill shit ’cause it’s in my DNA
I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA
I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA
I got off, I got troublesome, heart inside my DNA…

I know murder, conviction
Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption
Scholars, fathers dead with kids
And I wish I was fed forgiveness
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, soldier’s DNA
Born inside the beast
My expertise checked out in second grade
When I was 9, on cell, motel, we didn’t have nowhere to stay
At 29, I’ve done so well, hit cartwheel in my estate
And I’m gon’ shine like I’m supposed to…

The official video for “DNA”, with Don Cheadle, is available here.