Unions jump on new IR laws to boost aged care pay

Australian Financial Review, 6 December 2022

Aged care unions will use the Albanese government’s new industrial relations laws to bolster their push for pay rises of up to 25 per cent for 300,000 direct care workers.

The Health Services Union and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation have flagged with the Fair Work Commission they will use new overarching gender equity and job security objectives, introduced by the Secure Jobs, Better Pay laws passed last week, to bolster their case for higher pay in the sector.

The unions have also called on the federal government, which has pledged to fully fund any pay rise decided by the commission, to declare its position on how the new laws will affect the wage case.

The move to bring gender equity considerations into the case could add to what is already an estimated $1.9 billion annual wage bill for the largely feminised workforce, even as unions continue to pursue wage rises based on increased skill requirements.

HSU national president Gerard Hayes said the new provisions would be a “critical” addition to its case to lift pay by 25 per cent to up to $28 an hour.

“For too long, aged care has relied on a workforce of underpaid, insecurely employed women,” he said.

“These provisions are a critical step forward, and we intend using them to bolster the work value case we launched in the Fair Work Commission.”

The commission has already approved a 15 per cent interim pay rise for carers over a yet-to-be determined period of time, which experts estimate will cost the government an extra $1.9 billion a year.

However, the commission has still left open the need for further pay rises for carers as well as increases for other sector staff such as catering.

In correspondence to the Fair Work Commission on Tuesday, the ANMF said new award objectives that refer “to improving access to secure work and to the need to achieve gender equity in the workplace” were all relevant to the case.

The laws require the FWC to do this by “ensuring equal remuneration for work of equal or comparable value, eliminating gender-based undervaluation of work and providing workplace conditions that facilitate women’s full economic participation”.

The ANMF is also arguing the new laws are relevant to determine how the interim 15 per cent increase is phased in.

Under the new rules, the FWC must ensure work value cases are “free of assumptions based on gender and must include considerations of whether historically the work being assessed has been undervalued because of such assumptions”.

In handing down the 15 per cent interim increase, the FWC accepted as “a general proposition, work in feminised industries, including care work, has been historically undervalued and that the reason for that undervaluation is likely to be gender-based”.

However, it based its increase on work value principles as unions struggled to utilise the previous equal pay legislation to garner pay rises.

The ANMF is pushing for the FWC to direct the government to make further submissions on the new objectives as well as any other new laws that might be relevant.

“In the event the Commonwealth requires some short further time to address these additional matters, without disturbing the rest of the existing program, ANMF would not be opposed to that course.”

A spokesman for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations confirmed the federal government will make a further submission in the case on December 16.

“When the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill receives royal assent, which is anticipated in the near future, its amendments will apply to all matters including those currently on foot,” the spokesman said.

Aged care operators have largely supported high pay rises as a way to boost attraction and retention of staff in the face of skill shortages on the condition the increases are fully funded.