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Source: Etu Union

This Friday 29 October marks a global day of action for investment and decent work in care – #CAREday21. As the world continues to navigate the health and socioeconomic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of care workers – the majority of whom are women – continue to provide essential services in the most challenging of circumstances.

Decades of underinvestment, further exposed by the pandemic, has affected the accessibility, and safety of health and care services worldwide. Now is the time to stimulate sustainable economic and jobs growth in the care sector, as these are the green jobs of the future, with increasing numbers of people needing quality care and support as our population ages.

But to ensure the public has can access this, it is essential that there is investment to create decent and fair working conditions for our care workforces. 

Consider Tara, a community support worker who goes from home to home supporting over 65s, or those with long term medical conditions or 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 low – for her, 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 Tara is never given the certainty of those hours.

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 the way clients are cared for, Tara says it can be hard to feel good about the job.

Precariousness in the care sector is nothing new. Precariousness for women is certainly nothing new. Job security, regular hours and consistent entitlements are, arguably, an aberration of the post-Second World War period, enjoyed primarily by male – mostly white – workers in wealthier economies.

For women, stability and security has often been tied to a marital relationship. Insecure work remains racialised and gendered, with disproportionate impacts on women and people of colour. In New Zealand, women homecare workers had to take legal action even to be considered workers (Cashman v Central Regional Health Authority [1997]).

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. Previously care workers were paid only an allowance for being ‘on call’ when they were really at work. Most successful has been the Care and Support Pay Equity Settlement, which resulted in care 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.

Yet the shifting of cost and risk to working people, alongside their declining share of employers’ profits, is perhaps most pointed in the case of the emerging ‘gig’ or ‘sharing’ economy, in which online platforms like Uber are used to connect individual workers to individual consumers. 

Platforms for care, such as MyCare, operate in New Zealand, and arrangements which allow the market to determine the rates for care work, and ultimately the regulation of it, could threaten the improvements made by care workers and their unions over the past decade. It’s one of the reasons drivers and their unions have taken a legal case against Uber to prove, as others have globally, that in fact, they are the employer of drivers.

Reforms to the health system in New Zealand are positive and well overdue, but at the forefront, investing in the 150,000 workers in community settings, including Kaupapa Māori, home and community support, and other essential residential care settings is key. 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 the job should be paramount.

This means ensuring the value of the pay equity settlement is maintained when it expires in June 2022. It means ensuring gig, contracting, and other 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 think of care workers as real people. 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 initial 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. Just this past week, workers at Kaitaia’s only rest home – Claude Switzer – have gone on strike to try to win back their weekend rates and other benefits they stand to lose if they accept the terms their employer is proposing in a new collective agreement.

Care workers will continue to stand up in order to protect the wellbeing not only of those they care for, but also, for once, for themselves. But they shouldn’t have to do this alone. Let’s all stand beside them and call for investment in care and meet the demand to create the post-Covid care system our elders, vulnerable, and carers need.

Kirsty McCully is a health director at E tū.

MIL OSI