Thousands of low-paid female workers in age care and home and community support are ensnared in a wage poverty trap.
The 65,000-odd workers, predominantly women, are falling further and further behind, earning between the minimum wage of $22.70 at entry level to $28.25 four steps higher. Even the highest-paid carer on this scale receives only $2.25 an hour above the Living Wage of $26.
How has this come about?
The care and support worker pay equity case will not be concluded before the election.
Many of the employers who provide aged care and home support to disabled people and other vulnerable clients in the community have not passed on any of the 5 per cent uplift provided by the national health agency, Te Whatu Ora.
This is despite the Minister of Health’s expectations that workers should benefit by at least 3 per cent.
Age care and home and community support workers don’t have the same high profile as nurses and teachers, despite being the invisible glue in the health and wellbeing of thousands of New Zealanders. Their pay claims are as complicated as they are invisible.
The public expected that carers’ pay was sorted in 2017 following the historic pay deal in the Terranova case that looked at the shameful underfunding of the workforce. Kristine Bartlett, the Lower Hutt caregiver who was the face of the case, was voted New Zealander of the Year for her leadership.
However, the legislation passed at that time included a provision that a new claim could not be brought for five years.
A new claim was filed in July 2022, five years later. The legislation was extended until December 2023 to allow for a fresh claim but it is now a race against the clock.
The three unions who represent aged care and support workers, E Tu, the NZNO and the PSA are now pushing for the Ministry of Health and the Public Service Commission to stop delays from their oversight group and get on with pay equity.
The claim has been filed with 15 employers, covering about a third of the workforce, and workers say any funded framework agreement needs to cover the entire sector.
It is not just health that funds various contracts to providers of care and support. Other funders include Whaikaha, the Ministry of Social Development, ACC and Oranga Tamariki who are also part of the complicated mosaic of provision.
More than a decade ago, a major human rights report, “Caring Counts”, described working in the aged care sector as akin to modern-day slavery because of the pitifully low wages. As the report’s author, I went undercover and worked as a “buddy” carer in an age care facility.
The job entailed some of the hardest physical and emotional labour you can imagine.
Helping frail older people bathe and go to the toilet, feeding them, hoisting them on and off their beds, talking with them about their families and whānau and hearing their hopes and fears.
Every carer I worked with loved and supported their clients, even very difficult cases, with deepest compassion and empathy.
Many of the staff were migrant workers, Māori or Pacific women. Too many worked overtime because they had to.
They afforded older people the dignity they are entitled to.
It’s often said that the measure of a decent society is how it cares for its older and vulnerable people. But the value we place on older people must include the value we place on those who care for them.
That value includes proper pay that reflects the emotional and physical burdens of a critical job.
As the 2023 election looms, we have an opportunity to push for swift resolution of care and support worker pay.
It is not just the government and major political parties who must urgently cure the wage poverty trap.
Many NGO employers in the sector are financially precarious but at least six major aged care real estate corporations dominate the aged residential care sector and receive many millions in public subsidies.
Reading recent annual reports of these big corporations, it is clear they anticipate continued growth as they land bank to build future villages and record profits, some in the 20 per cent plus mark in 2022.
Age care is a powerful political lobby and a shrill critic of historic government under-investment. But residential village sales are premised explicitly on a continuum of care as well as leisure activities.
Shareholders and stakeholders have the opportunity to insist these companies step up, too, to cure the poverty wages of their carers and retain their staff.
One of the big six reported in 2022 that its CEO’s total remuneration at $1.2 million plus was 18.8 times higher than that of the total remuneration of the median employee, at around $64,000.
However, a carer even at the top of the scale, has no hope of reaching that level without crippling overtime.
Decent pay that properly values the complexity and emotional and physical labour of care and support work is a basic human right.
New Zealand’s record in curing the poverty wages of care and support workers is shameful. But it is one that we can cure with vocal public and media support, strong union representation, demonstrable employer responsibility and urgent political will.
- Dame Judy McGregor is Emeritus Professor of Human Rights at AUT. She was the first Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner with the NZ Human Rights Commission from 2002- 2012.