Union launches legal action over slashed aged care wages

Australian Financial Review, 30 May 2022

The Health Services Union is launching legal action to stop aged care operators from hiring outsourced catering staff on hospitality awards where pay rates are lower.

The union will take Catering Industries to the Federal Court on Monday to argue that outsourced catering staff in aged care facilities should be paid under the aged care award rather than a hospitality award. Base rates and weekend penalty rates are higher under the aged care award.

The union argues moving catering workers to a hospitality award would equate to about a 5 per cent pay cut, with a full-time cook left around $4000 a year worse off under the hospitality award while a full-time supervisor with oversight of an aged care kitchen would earn about $3175 less a year.

If successful, the case could set a precedent for the industry and apply to other outsourced services in aged care such as laundry.

The legal action comes on top of the union’s case to lift minimum wages for the aged care workforce by 25 per cent which is currently before the Fair Work Commission. If that case succeeds, more than 200,000 personal carers, activities officers, catering, cleaning and administration workers will see their pay rise by at least $5 an hour.

Before being elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese promised Labor would make a submission to the Fair Work Commission to increase pay as part of a proposed overhaul of the aged care workers award.

HSU national president Gerard Hayes said putting workers on a hospitality award would widen the pay gap even further if the union wins its Fair Work wage claim and would be a massive blow for staff attraction and retention.

“It’s effectively flying in the face of everything we’ve been speaking about in the aged care sector for many years,” he said.

“It’s hard enough to attract and retain people in aged care so doing this will not only limit the amount of people who work in aged care, but you will effectively have people now working with their colleagues for many, many years on really inferior wages.

“It will be to the point where it will be easier to go and work at your local pub or retail store, than actually care for elderly Australians.”

The “endless splintering” of the workforce was undermining the bargaining of all aged care staff and keeping wages at rock bottom, Mr Hayes said.

The Federal Court case is based on a claim from about 10 to 15 staff working at a Botany aged care facility, but if successful, could have wider ramifications for outsourced workers in the aged care industry.

“This is not seasonal or event-based employment, these are not people who are not moving from one stadium to another stadium or turning up when the AFL or NRL is on,” Mr Hayes said.

“They are part of the establishment and work as part of a team. This is about maintaining the integrity of aged care awards in aged care industries.”

Mr Hayes said aged care operators wouldn’t be saddled with increased costs if the Federal Court ruled in the union’s favour.

“It would cost them what their current expenditure is now so it wouldn’t be exorbitant at all,” he said.

“We’re not seeking to enhance, we’re seeking to maintain [wages], and that’s the kicker in all of this. Everyone acknowledges aged care work is so underpaid, so under resourced and yet now here is an opportunity to be lower paid and that just flies in the face of any common sense.”