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Aged care workers set to go on strike for first time

A majority of aged care workers across five large aged care facilities have voted to go on strike due to ongoing anger about the treatment of workers and aged care residents, poor wage increases, and continued workforce shortage.

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Thousands of aged care workers have elected to have a strike before the Election if no fixes to aged care are made. [Source: Shutterstock]

It is expected that if there is no change to the conditions in aged care industrial action will be taken before the Federal Election, which will be the first time aged care workers have ever taken national strike action to express their frustration about pay rates and inadequate staffing levels.

The United Workers Union (UWU), union for working people including aged care, says that thousands of aged care staff have warned their providers that unless they address the continuing understaffing issues, there will be strike action.

UWU Aged Care Director, Carolyn Smith, says that aged care workers are being "forced to take unprecedented strike action" because of the ongoing issues in aged care that are yet to be resolved.

"This is totally unprecedented. We have rarely seen industrial action in the aged care sector and we have certainly never seen it at this magnitude. I think it just shows the difficulties that aged care workers have been facing over the last few years," explains Ms Smith.

"...It shows how far aged care workers have been pushed. I think it is ironic that aged care workers are having to take action for quality aged care, for staffing ratios, for more staff.

"It is kind of shocking that aged care workers are having to stand up for quality aged care when it should be Government and the providers that are doing that."

Ms Smith adds that with aged care workers receiving such low pay for their work, many workers are barely able to afford the petrol they need to get to their jobs, which is resulting in aged care staff considering leaving the sector for good.

The pandemic on top of an already struggling aged care system has "only just held up as workers work twice as hard as they should", explains Ms Smith.

The current industrial action that has been endorsed so far, by aged care workers across five aged care providers in South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, would allow for "indefinite stoppages" as well as other industrial measures.

Votes are still being conducted at three other aged care facilities in Western Australia and South Australia.

Ms Smith says there are still details to be organised with aged care workers about what industrial action will be taken over the next coming days, however, she believes there is a really strong move for action within the membership and it is very likely there will be strike action in the next few weeks.

The recent Federal Budget left many aged care workers disappointed with the outcome and funding provided to the sector.

The Federal Budget provided $10.1 billion in funding over the next year and an additional $462.3 million for the aged care reform plan, which was a response to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.

"I think aged care workers were incredibly disappointed in the Federal Budget because it almost didn't mention aged care," says Ms Smith.

"The only money that was in the budget for aged care was for extra training for staff. Aged care workers were saying to me is 'what is the use of extra training when so many of us are leaving the industry because we are exhausted and we can't afford to do the job?'

"Workers were really really upset that there was nothing more in this Budget. The Royal Commission very clearly pointed out that the way to get quality aged care, the workforce was absolutely key to quality aged care.

"You can't have quality aged care if you don't have enough staff on the floor and if the staff aren't properly trained and properly compensated for the skilled work and dedication they have."

Many aged care bodies and organisations were disappointed with the omission of pay increases for aged care workers, which was the main problem that the sector wanted to see fixed in this year's Budget.

The Australian Aged Care Collaboration (AACC), representing six aged care peak bodies, was pushing for an aged care worker pay increase to help improve workforce shortages and to show respect to the hard-working staff. However, that request was never addressed in the Budget.

Just before the Budget was released, the AACC unveiled a study that found that the wages of aged care workers were barely covering the cost of living.

Paul Sadler, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) and AACC spokesperson, said after the Budget that the Government had missed the mark for aged care.

"Deeply disappointing in terms of the workforce, the failure to address the wages of aged care workers - how long is it going to take before a Government actually gets round to getting justice for the workers!" says Mr Sadler.

"From the point of view of the provider organisations of ACSA and the AACC, we cannot compete in the broader marketplace for workers. We really run the risk of losing our current experienced workers to other areas that can pay better. And obviously, we will struggle to recruit new staff if we can't be competitive from a wage point of view.

"The constant putting off of the day Government is going to have to do this is really, really disappointing."

While the likelihood of a strike is high, the Union says it will work with aged care providers to ensure the safety and wellbeing of residents are still met, and providers will be notified in advance of when the strike will occur and what actions will be taken.

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