The federal government says its own workplace reforms improving gender equality and job security should not dictate the urgency of a highly anticipated pay rise for aged care workers, as the industry and unions call for the increase to be given immediately.
A government submission to a Fair Work Commission hearing also argues it is not within the body’s remit to determine when the Commonwealth must deliver on its election promise to fund the pay rise, and says the haemorrhaging of the workforce should have no bearing on the timing either.
“The commission does not need to consider whether it would theoretically be possible for the Commonwealth to fund the full interim increase through its funding mechanisms sooner than it has decided,” the submission lodged on Friday said.
Fair Work ruled in November that aged care workers were entitled to a 15 per cent pay rise after unions launched a wage case calling for an increase of 25 per cent, or about $5 an hour.
The government, which backed the wage case, wants to phase in the increase over 12 months from July 1, while multiple unions and aged care providers say it should be funded in full as soon as possible.
Labor amended the Fair Work Act in December as part of its Secure Jobs, Better Pay legislation to make job security and gender equality an object of the act and ensure equal pay for work of comparative value.
Its submission said those factors were relevant to the timing and implementation of the increase but “it does not agree that these new provisions mandate the interim increase commencing immediately, or that any other decision would fail to achieve these objectives”.
The submission also said the government would not fund backpay if the commission decided the pay increase should begin earlier than July, and Fair Work should not consider the retention or attraction of the workforce, which suffers from tens of thousands of vacancies, in the timing of the wage rise.
Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes asked whether the nation was going to staff its aged-care homes with robots.
“Aged care is haemorrhaging staff, and we are living in a fool’s paradise if we let this sector crumble,” Hayes said in an interview on Monday.
“The Commonwealth should pay wage increases immediately, otherwise it will face a painful reconstruction of the industry.”
Aged and Community Care Providers Association chief executive Tom Symondson urged the government to bring forward the wage funding to stem the tide of full-time staffing going to better-paying agencies, which then hired staff back to providers at an inflated rate.
Symondson said many providers were now forced to outsource 20 per cent of their workforce, affecting both their bottom lines and the continuity of care for residents.
“It’s a cost we simply cannot bear, and it’s just adding to that unsustainability of the sector, but the more important issue is ... it doesn’t allow us to build relationships between staff and residents that are so critical,” Symondson said.
Health Minister Mark Butler last Wednesday stood by the government’s decision to wait until July to fund the rise for aged-care workers, labelling the incoming pay boost, plus increases in industry award payments decided by the industrial umpire last year as “very substantial increases to wages underwritten by taxpayers”.
In response, Australian Council of Trade Unions head Sally McManus said: “Aged care workers are coming from a long way behind. Fair Work has found they are undervalued, and the sooner we rectify this injustice, the better.”