Care and support workers – the vast majority of whom are women – continue to provide essential services in the most challenging of circumstances. New Zealand must invest to create high quality care, and Decent Work with fair working conditions and sustainable jobs for our care workforces. More people than ever require care and support. They are often our most vulnerable family members. Care workers in New Zealand ultimately are the care provided to our loved ones, and investment in their ongoing training and continued ability to do their jobs should be paramount.
Consider Tara, a community support worker who goes from home to home, supporting people with long-term medical conditions and disabilities. Tara is a solo mum of three school-aged children, and manages her time around parenting responsibilities, trying to work enough hours to keep a roof over their heads, pay the mortgage, and manage before and after school care. Tara’s hours change from week to week as her guaranteed hours of work are kept artificially low to create flexibility for her employer. For Tara, this means only 21 hours of work guaranteed per week even though she’d like more. Tara relies on additional child support payments coming in, otherwise it would be hard for her to survive week to week and cover the bills. When her employer needs Tara to do more hours, she is called in at short notice, but for Tara those hours are never guaranteed income. With petrol and car costs going up all the time, the equation becomes incredibly hard, and when you add on top of that the fact that community support workers often have no input into care plans, or the way clients are cared for, Tara says it can be hard to feel good about the job.
Precariousness and insecure work for women working in the care sector is nothing new. Insecure work remains racialised and gendered, with disproportionate impacts on women and tangata whenua, Pasifika, and migrant workers. Successful litigation by unions ensures care workers are now paid for most of their work time, including travel between clients in the community, or for sleepovers. The Support Workers Pay Equity Settlement in 2017 was a huge success, which resulted in workers achieving some of the biggest pay rises of their lives – it was “life changing”, as the instigator of the legal action and subsequent New Zealander of the Year, Kristine Bartlett, put it.
But that settlement expired in July 2022. To achieve Decent Work, workers will have to fight to ensure the value of the pay equity settlement is maintained. This means the Government committing to increasing the pay rates and maintaining the training and progression requirements of the 2017 settlement. It means ensuring individualised models of employment do not take over to unravel the positive and world-leading steps New Zealand has taken to train, regulate, and to consider care workers as real people with careers, families, lives, and communities. It means continuing the reforms – only partially completed – and which were recommended back in 2012 in the Caring Counts Report to create safe staffing levels in our residential care facilities.
Real people, like Tara, who cannot survive on hours that change every week or two, or without security of income, or in an environment where the psychosocial harm associated with the job is as real as the harassment she may face as an individualised worker in a private home.
Community care workers had to fight for their own safety during the first Covid lockdown when initial PPE guidance suggested masks and gloves weren’t needed when going from home to home every day delivering personal care, despite public guidance that everyone should avoid visiting their elderly family and friends lest they be placed at risk. Workers had to keep standing up and taking action to win improvements throughout the pandemic.
Care workers will continue to stand up in order to protect the wellbeing not only of those they care for, but also for themselves. They know these two things are inextricably linked. But care workers shouldn’t have to fight alone. Let’s all stand beside them and call for investment and decent jobs in care. Let’s make sure the health reforms set us up for the care and support system our communities need.
Decent Work in care and support means:
Respect for care and support
Care and support is a vital and growing area, essential to our loved ones and communities. Our care and support workforce and those who require care and support, deserve Decent Work, respect, and a sector they can rely on.
Fair wages and training for all
Increased care and support wages which reflect the importance of care work, fair pay for travel, and parity for other workers such as coordination, administration, and service workers across the sector.
Worker voice and union rights
Workers have a unique and valuable vantage point and care workers’ voices must be heard. This means union and delegate rights must be respected, and workers must have input into the decisions being made about the work they do, and into reporting on the performance of the sector.
Fair hours and secure work
Hours of work must be consistent, fair, and guaranteed – for individuals, and across the sector.
Safety and wellbeing
Mandatory protocols for safe staffing in residential settings, and enough time to do the job safely in the community. Health and safety reporting processes which are clear, transparent, and robust, with workers’ voices at the forefront.