Tapu Misa on current affairs
Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Caring for the carers of the aged

Carers have an increasingly demanding workload.  Photo / Getty Images
Carers have an increasingly demanding workload. Photo / Getty Images

There's no excuse for delaying pay equity for the people who look after our elderly, writes Tapu Misa.

On Campbell Live last week, a tired-looking single mother of two talked about life on the $13.50 minimum wage.

"Come and live my life," challenged Kelly Belsher, a minimum-wage cleaner and part-time student. "Not for a week, not for a month. [For] at least six months - no car, no home phone - for the insanity to really set in, the hopelessness, the desperation."

I suspect the careworn Kelly wouldn't have been as relaxed about the zero budget as the "average" Auckland family featured in the Herald a couple of days later.

They pronounced it "sensible", which may have had something to do with their household income being above $105,000, making them better off than three-quarters of households. Austerity looks a little different on the minimum wage.

How do the very low paid get their message across to those who hold the purse strings in this country? Few things pack the emotional punch of first-hand experience.

Two organisations advocating for aged care workers recently challenged "decision-makers and influencers" to come down from their privileged perches and experience working as a carer, for a shift, or a day, or a week.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor, a journalist and newspaper editor in a previous life, took up the challenge.

As part of an inquiry into the pay and conditions of those who care for our elderly, McGregor went undercover at a rest home. Her diary of her time as a carer forms part of Caring Counts, a report into the aged care sector.

It confirms what many of us already know but choose to ignore - "the indecency of poorly paid 'emotional labour' undertaken by often marginalised workers looking after vulnerable older people".

Underpaid and undervalued, with an increasingly complex and demanding workload, McGregor notes that the genuine attachment and sense of obligation felt by carers towards their elderly charges allows them to be exploited by funders.

That's us, ultimately, as the Ministry of Health funds district health boards which fund private providers of aged care.

The report highlights the 16 per cent pay gap between carers who work for private providers (at around $14 an hour) and those employed by DHBs (around $17 with paid overtime); as well as the added economic burden of inadequate travel compensation for carers who provide support for the elderly in their own homes.

McGregor's undercover experience gives the report a personal edge. Everybody should work as a carer, she urges: "To do is to know. To know is to get angry. "From my privileged and elite position as EEO commissioner ... I have objectively felt throughout this inquiry that it is grossly unfair that the state pays district health boards who pay their carer employees several dollars per hour more than people doing the exact same job down the road in private facilities which the DHBs, and therefore the state, also funds. It offends against human decency. The arguments used to defend the pay disparity are morally defective.

"Now my anger is subjective as well. The reliance of New Zealand, of all of us, on the emotional umbilical cord between women working as carers and the older people they care for at $13 to $14 an hour is a form of modern-day slavery. It exploits the goodwill of women, it is a knowing exploitation. We can neither claim ignorance nor amnesia."

McGregor's report proposes a 10-point plan, including a recommendation for the Ministry of Health to require DHBs to work towards pay parity within three years (at an estimated cost of around $140 million a year).

Despite fiscal constraints, she argues that in the interest of justice, "we should not accept further delay to address a systemic inequality that is within our power to remedy".

"Inaction on pay inequality and inadequate compensation for travel are breaches of fundamental human rights. Given their significance, these breaches cannot be justified by affordability arguments."

McGregor is critical of "investors, employers, CEOs, politicians, policy analysts, Treasury experts and those who speak for them, [who] routinely use the serious fiscal impact of pay parity for residential and home based carers with district health board-employed carers as their longstanding defence against the payment of decent wages for private residential age caring. They do so from a profound ignorance of actual 'doing'.

"As professionals they have probably never received an hourly rate as low as $14.62 after 12 years working in the same facility, in their entire lives even as long ago as their student days in short-term hospitality or retail. They have probably never stood for a six- to eight-hour shift, bending, hoisting, lifting, toileting, sponging, dressing or feeding frail old people.

"The closest they may have come to age care is arranging for elderly parents, grandparents or relatives to move into a rest home or hospital care environment and visiting. But they haven't actually done it. They don't know it. But they sit in judgment of its value."

Ageing, as McGregor points out, is not just some bad habit, and nor is it an unpredictable risk.

"How we provide aged care and how we pay for it are seriously hard questions. They may be among the hardest of our times."

But that's no excuse for delaying justice for the people who care for our elderly. If nothing else, self-interest should demand that we treat them exactly as we'd like to be treated, a few years from now.

- NZ Herald

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