The powerful union boss spearheading aged-care workers’ push for higher wages says Labor’s promised endorsement of the case should be the top priority of its first few weeks in government.
Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes said the new government’s foreshadowed submission to the Fair Work Commission supporting increased pay for staff in the struggling sector must be its “first priority” as Labor weighs up competing interests across a broad reform agenda.
“I would be seeing pens put to paper as we speak. This is not a matter of ‘hurry up and wait’. This is a matter that government, the community and workers all acknowledge, and the royal commission has found, that something has to be done, and has to be done imminently,” Hayes said.
“Time is of the essence to be able to put in that submission to be able to give effect to the government’s position to fully support the outcome of the case.”
The industrial umpire has hosted several weeks of hearings into the union’s case to increase workers’ pay by 25 per cent, or about $5 an hour, with more due to take place later this year. The crisis-plagued sector has haemorrhaged workers, with previous border closures worsening skills shortages and the army being called in to help manage facilities during the pandemic.
Hayes earlier this year warned the HSU would withhold election campaign resources if Labor didn’t strengthen its stance on aged care before the party promised 24/7 registered nurses, $2.5 billion extra for the sector, and to fully fund the outcome of the case it already committed to supporting, during its budget reply.
“It’s a good golf swing, [but] it’s all about the follow-through,” Hayes said. “It’s the first priority in our view, absolutely. We appreciate there are competing interests, but people in aged care are suffering today.”
A spokesperson for acting prime minister Richard Marles said Labor was “determined to change aged care in this country for the better.”
“This will be a key priority of this government and key priority of the responsible minister, especially given the years of neglect,” the spokesperson said.
United Work Union aged care director Carolyn Smith, who led strikes earlier this month across several states due to poor pay and conditions, agreed with Hayes the submission needed to be prioritised, and should be timed so it could be examined during the hearings, resuming in July.
“The government’s got to be really activist about this, and they’ve got to act quickly,” Smith said.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported last week operators need almost 60,000 workers to plug the national staffing gap, with providers calling for prioritised childcare for workers and migration incentives, such as help with school and housing placements, to draw people back into the workforce.
Catholic Health Australia, which commissioned the research on those figures, has previously called for the government to lower visa thresholds to allow recruitment from overseas to prevent aged-care homes from closing, with both sides of politics now acknowledging the need, at least in the short-term, to source workers internationally.
Hayes acknowledged migration would have to be a factor in rebuilding the workforce, however he warned against arrangements being made before the Fair Work case was finalised, and said it should not lead to exploitation in a sector that was now striving to attract and retain staff.