Health workers’ union takes fight for kitchen staff in NSW aged care home to federal court

The Guardian, 30 May 2022

Case to test the limits of outsourcing in sector amid concern about food standards in some facilities

The health workers’ union will take its fight for kitchen staff in a New South Wales aged care home to be recognised as part of the industry to the federal court in a case set to test the limits of outsourcing in the beleaguered industry.

Hearings will begin on Monday in the case between the Health Services Union and Catering Industries (NSW) Pty Ltd, over whether employees working in the kitchen and food services operations at Heritage Care’s 112-bed facility in Botany, south-eastern Sydney, should be paid as aged care workers rather than lower-paid hospitality staff.

The case comes amid concerns about the standard of food provided to elderly residents at some aged care facilities.

The HSU national president, Gerard Hayes, said aged care services needed to be considered in a unified way for them to be effective.

“Aged care residents require holistic care and to deliver that you need a holistic workforce,” Hayes said. “When you outsource part of a service, it becomes merely transactional. But working in aged care is not the same as working at Stadium Australia or the SCG or another entertainment venue.

“You can’t carve out catering or cleaning from care and health. An aged care facility is not a clinical setting, it’s people’s homes.”

Heritage Care Botany previously employed kitchen and food service staff directly but this changed in mid-2019, when the home outsourced its food operations to Catering Industries.

In mid-2020 negotiations began on a new enterprise agreement to cover those employees engaged in kitchen and food services.

In its submission to the federal court, the HSU said that during bargaining, a dispute arose over whether or not the employees should continue to be classified as aged care workers, with their wages and conditions falling under the aged care award 2010, as they had before the outsourcing.

Catering Industries sought to have the staff classified as hospitality workers instead, with the new agreement underpinned by the hospitality industry (general) award 2020.

The HSU argued that many of the employees had been transferred from direct employment to being employed by Catering Services.

“The work changed very little and Catering Industries continued to apply the enterprise agreement which applied to Heritage Care following the outsourcing,” the HSU submission to the federal court said. “This involved recognition that the employees were performing ‘the same, or substantially the same,’ work as when directly employed by Heritage Care.”

The union said the change in award would leave workers worse off, as base rates and weekend shift penalties under the hospitality award are lower.

The case comes as aged care workers fight separately in the federal court for a 25% pay rise. If successful, workers no longer covered by the aged care award would be likely to miss out on the benefits of that pay rise.

Heritage Care Botany, Catering Industries and their representatives have been contacted for comment.

The newly elected Labor federal government promised to fund aged care workers’ 25% pay rise and improve conditions in homes after the royal commission into aged care quality and safety.

Before the election, Labor also pledged to ensure registered nurses were on site 24/7 in every residential aged care facility nationally, and that every resident would receive an average of 215 minutes of care a day.

Quality and provision of food in aged care was also a focus of the royal commission. The commission heard numerous stories of aged care providers serving poor quality and unappetising food, and residents in aged care not receiving sufficient assistance to eat and drink, leading to malnutrition, dehydration and worsening health outcomes.

Aged care residents have also been some of Australia’s most vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic. The sector has reported more than 1,418 deaths so far this year, more than the two first years of the pandemic combined.

It has urged the government to reinstate Covid prevention funding, which was designed to help the sector manage the cost of deploying measures to prevent outbreaks.