Building strength in aged care

We’ve come a long way in aged care but more commitment and focus than ever is needed to face the challenges presented by the new industrial relations laws.

The NSWNA is proud of our achievements for nurses in aged care.

Our Fair Share for Aged Care campaign and wage case delivered a 25% pay rise for aged care nurses between 2003 and 2006. 25,000 aged care nurses in NSW benefited from this pay rise.

Now John Howard’s new federal IR laws present fresh challenges if we are to further improve pay and working conditions in the sector.

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission no longer has the power to hear work value cases, which was the way we won our previous pay rises.

The award system – the way by which the pay increases and better conditions were delivered to aged care nurses – has been gutted under these new laws.

Our current conditions are now only preserved in a transitional way and whether they remain will be dependent on the next round of bargaining.

The Lamp looks at the enormous challenges this new environment presents if we are to improve the pay and working conditions of aged care nurses.

Aggressive employers

The federal government’s new IR laws are designed to shift power away from employees towards employers, giving them a strong hand in bargaining. The NSWNA anticipates that some employers will try to take advantage of these laws to drive down pay and conditions.

Under the new laws:

  • employers have the unilateral right to refuse to bargain collectively with workers, even if that is what the majority of workers at a workplace want;
  • workers and unions will be restricted from using collective bargaining to protect employees from AWAs and unfair dismissal;
  • once an agreement has expired, an employer can terminate its provisions with 90 days’ notice, then lower your pay and reduce your conditions.

But unions and workers are not without our own strengths. The nursing shortage can be seen as an advantage when we argue for better wages and conditions.

Aged care is a growing sector and it will be important for employers to make jobs attractive to provide the sort of care required to win or hold their share of the market.

Progressive employers will work with the union to make the industry more attractive. Greedy employers will think short term and take advantage of the federal government’s anti-worker laws.

Our challenge

We need to negate the excessive power given to employers through the new laws with everyone in the union and strong organisation on the ground.

Scale of the sector

Single facilities are the dominant model in aged care.

  • There are 1,259 residential aged care facilities  in NSW.
  • Sole operators dominate the industry, with 63% of  approved providers only operating one service or facility.

Our challenge

John Howard’s new laws will force us to bargain employer by employer rather than across the entire industry as before. The large number of facilities and employers will confront us with a serious logistical challenge. This decentralisation of bargaining will pose the risk of aged care nurses being on different rates of pay and conditions and the laws are aimed at achieving exactly that.

The threat of AWAs

AWAs are the federal government’s individual contracts for workers. They allow employers to undermine collective agreements and leave employees much worse off.

Employers now have the power to:

  • Ask workers to sign individual agreements that cut take-home pay and remove family-friendly clauses such as public holiday entitlements, paid maternity leave and shift allowances;
  • Make signing an AWA a condition of getting a job or promotion;
  • Divide staff by only offering pay rises to those who sign AWAs;
  • Sack workers and offer them their jobs back on an AWA that cuts take-home pay.

Of the AWAs signed since the new laws came in:

  • More than 20% provide no pay increase at all;
  • 40% got rid of public holiday entitlements;
  • 63% removed penalty rates;
  • All removed at least one award condition.

By contrast, collective bargaining has delivered for Australian workers for over 100 years:

  • Average weekly wage figures for 2002-2004 show that wages were down by $110 a week (11%) for those on AWAs;
  • Wages were up by $46 a week (6.2%) for those on collective agreements.

Our challenge

We must fight to make sure nobody gets left behind. A collective agreement is the best chance for a decent pay rise and the conditions that allow us to balance work and family life.

‘Why have they done this?’

Ghenet Abraha, AiN at Rosedale Nursing Home, said she is angry at John Howard and his government for bringing in new laws that threaten her livelihood when she is already just keeping her head above water.

‘You have to make ends meet and without weekend rates and overtime it would be very hard. I’ve talked to others at work and we’re all stressed when we think of the future,’ she said. ‘I ask myself, why have they done this?

‘I’m a single mum. I had two jobs – both in aged care – but the other home has closed down so I’ve had my hours reduced.’

Ghenet says she is committed to her job but she also has to think about how she can survive.

‘I like my job, I like aged care and my residents but if the money went down I’d have to look at everything.’

Ghenet says she also worries about the uncertain future ahead for her daughter.

‘My daughter finished high school last year and I wanted her to go to uni and become a nurse but now I’m not so sure. I’m worried about her future.’