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Union concerned trade deal may provide loopholes for overseas aged care companies

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) is concerned the world's largest trade deal, which Parliament is working towards ratification of the agreement, will have a damaging effect on the aged care sector, potentially jeopardising necessary reform changes in the industry.

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The trade agreement could impinge on the rollout of aged care reforms by not holding overseas private companies accountable to normal aged care regulation. [Source: iStock]

The Federal Government is looking to ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal, which would remove barriers to trade for many overseas companies across 14 countries.

This agreement is seeking to liberalise trade in services, which wouldn't impact childcare and some healthcare areas as they have been made exempt from trade liberalisation - which includes deregulation - but aged care has not, says the ANMF. 

The organisation is concerned that overseas private companies may use certain articles of the trade deal once legislated to not adhere to strict aged care regulations and transparency requirements that the current Australian sector has to follow.

ANMF Federal Secretary, Annie Butler, says that if the RCEP deal goes ahead in its current form, it would run the risk of providing loopholes for private overseas companies to avoid any sort of accountability for how they provide care to aged care residents.

"The ANMF welcomed the recommendations for greater staffing, greater accountability and greater transparency from the Royal Commission [into Aged Care Quality and Safety] but we are now concerned that this trade deal could jeopardise these urgently-needed reforms of aged care," says Ms Butler.

"We are calling on the Government to amend the agreement before the enabling legislation is put before Parliament this week and remove any confusion. If the Government will not make this amendment, then we need the opposition parties to vote against the legislation.

"If you agree that the aged care system needs more regulation, then you must ensure that there are absolutely no impediments to implementing change."

Spokesperson for Trade at the ANMF NSW Branch, Michael Whaites, has questioned why the trade agreement is going against some of the Aged Care Royal Commission recommendations.

"On one hand we have a trade agreement whose purpose is to freeze or deregulate services and on the other, we have a Royal Commission calling for more regulation," says Mr Whaites.

"Increased accountability and transparency requires tighter regulation, not less regulation. It came as a shock to us that the Government has chosen not to exclude aged care from the agreement. The RCEP agreement excludes childcare and some aspects of healthcare, but not aged care.

"This represents either an oversight by the Government or it represents a belief by the Government that the aged care system is currently over-regulated, which would fly in the face of the Royal Commission’s findings."

The ANMF NSW Branch provided a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties in regards to the concerns it has over the RCEP agreement and how it will impact reforms in aged care.

There are articles in the current RCEP Bill that ANMF believes would potentially hinder progress in the aged care sector, including:

  • A clause that would prevent the Government from implementing limits on people working for private overseas companies who operate in Australia. The ANMF believes this could impact mandated minimum nurses, resident ratios, and skill mixes in aged care.

  • An article in the agreement that would prevent the Government from requiring a foreign investor to have a physical presence - head office - in Australia, which the ANMF believes would raise serious concerns about the Government's ability to hold corporations accountable. 

  • A clause that the Government cannot require a multinational company to provide their service in a specific area, so service could be provided based on profit decisions and not on need.

The submission from the ANMF says, "Although existing [Free Trade Agreements] have the same clauses, the timing of the RCEP agreement is noteworthy because of the recommendations of the [Aged Care Royal Commission] and strong community expectation arising from the evidence presented at the [Royal Commission] that significant change will occur.

"The agitating question is that if the Government is committed to meaningful change in aged care delivery, then why did it not exempt aged care from RCEP as it did childcare? Does the Government think further deregulation of the aged care sector is warranted? If the Government does not think this, then the Government needs to act by including aged care on the negative list.

"The [NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association] considers implementation of the RCAC recommendations, including those identified as requiring new regulation in order to be implemented, is vital to ensure safe and quality care for elderly Australians accessing aged care services. We would be extremely concerned if any potential barrier to implementing the recommendations was established by adopting the RCEP in its current form."

20 October update: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) disagrees with the Union saying that this trade agreement will not impact reform changes in the aged care sector.

In the RCEP's current form, the Government is not looking to make amendments as the agreement states that Government preserves the ability to regulate in line with public interest. 

A spokesperson for DFAT says, "The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement will not prevent or impair the implementation of any of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety (RCAC).

"All aged care operators must comply with Australia’s laws and regulation, irrespective of ownership.

"The RCEP agreement preserves the Government’s right to regulate to ensure that domestic and foreign aged care providers meet high quality standards across the entire aged care sector."

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