Sunday, November 28, 2010

In Australia, government considers more livable wage for those who aid disabled or elderly people

From Adele Horin, columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia:

When aged care workers tell people what they do for a living the usual response is: ''I don't know how you do it.'' It is said with admiration as if only a warm, self-sacrificing, special person could stomach the job of looking after old people with dementia.

The same sympathetic response greets disability workers when they admit to working with intellectually disabled children who cannot feed or toilet themselves: ''I don't know how you do it. You must be a saint.''

They are not saints. They are trained professionals. And now they are demanding to be paid like trained professionals. For decades the work of the nation's 150,000 or so community sector employees - 85 per cent female - has been undervalued and underpaid. Everyone thinks they are wonderful - the Prime Minister included. But no one wants to pay them what they are worth.

Ultimately their salary is paid by us - the taxpayer. And taxpayers worry more these days about budget deficits than about the low wages of the workers who care for their elderly parents and their toddlers.

The bigger the salary taxpayers pull in and the more plush their city office, the more likely they are to be worried by budget deficits, and the less likely to support proper government funding of community services and the people who provide them.

Rape crisis counsellors, youth workers, family support workers and the rest who deal with society's broken, damaged, frail and forgotten are not only poorly paid but are rarely found in plush city offices; rather many work in dumps, demountables and cubby holes for charities and other non-government organisations that are wholly or largely funded by government grants.

The federal government in its submission last week to an important pay equity test case urges Fair Work Australia to carefully consider the wider costs to the nation's budget of granting community workers the better pay deal they seek. The case presents the best opportunity to close the gender pay gap since the 1972 equal pay decision.

The new Fair Work Act makes it possible for the first time, federally, to test pay rates in one job against those for comparable work, and to test by how much ''women's work'' has been undervalued.

But the government, instead of whole-heartedly supporting the unions who have mounted the challenge, is issuing dire warnings and threats. Large wage increases, even if phased in, could blow the government's return to budget surplus, it says. ''If any additional government funding is provided, it would likely come at the expense of other government-funded services,'' it warns.

It will not be a new fighter plane that will be jettisoned but a raft of services for the homeless, domestic violence victims and so on.

Nothing can get in the way of the government delivering its promised budget surplus, not even the chance for Labor to lift the pay of this historically undervalued predominantly female workforce to parity with men doing work of comparable value.

Aged care and disability workers and the rest are being asked to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a fiscal surplus.

In these relatively good economic times, the government maintains it cannot afford to pay community workers a decent salary, just as in the decade of the Howard government huge receipts from the mining boom were squandered on tax cuts for the better off while community workers fell behind.

Community workers might well ask if their time will ever come. Not in bad times, not in a recession surely, and not under a Coalition government with Work Choices in its DNA. If not now when, with a female Labor prime minister, who says she understands but unfortunately has higher priorities.

The government had offered early support for the case. It had agreed to back the Australian Services Union application for an equal remuneration order for community and disability workers. It had committed to provide evidence and research for the case and to support an agreed statement of fact.

It supplied in its submission plenty of evidence for the underpayment of this workforce, as promised. But it has baulked at paying up.

An agency such as Mission Australia faces a $3.735 million increase in salary costs under a proposed new salary scale. It doubts the government would pay its share of $2.518 million and warns that services will be cut or closed.

Community workers are not public servants. But as governments have outsourced more work to the charitable and non-government sector over the years, many community workers do virtually the same work as public servants - only for much less pay. For example, social workers employed by government earn $30,000 to $40,000 more than social workers employed by non-government agencies working on the same programs.

The huge turnover and critical shortages in aged care and childcare are harbingers of times to come. Childcare workers cannot afford childcare for their own children and aged-care workers retire with little superannuation. Australia will need more community workers, especially in aged and disability care, as the population ages and the pool of workers shrinks. We will not be able to attract them with peanuts and patronising praise for their saintliness.

Either the government should rethink its spending priorities or its fixation with budget surpluses. It would be a pity if our first female prime minister, and a Labor one at that, resiles from a historic chance to help under-paid, mainly women, workers gain wage justice.

They cannot eat their haloes.