Undercover boss slams workers' conditions

DAVID KEMEYS
Last updated 08:50 27/05/2012
Equal opportunities commissioner Judy McGregor
PHIL DOYLE/Fairfax NZ
UNDER-COVER: Equal opportunities commissioner Judy McGregor.

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She is the real undercover boss.

Human Rights Commission equal employment opportunities commissioner Dr Judy McGregor worked undercover in the elderly care industry and her report slams the sector as a type of modern-day slavery.

Nearly all the workers are women, who earn as little as $14 an hour, something McGregor says must change because in less than 10 years New Zealand will need 70 per cent more workers in an industry that already loses a quarter of its staff a year.

"It offends against human decency. The reliance on the emotional umbilical cord between women working as carers and the older people they care for at $13-$14 an hour is a form of modern-day slavery. It exploits the goodwill of women, it is a knowing exploitation. We can claim neither ignorance nor amnesia."

McGregor went undercover in January for a week, swapping her office for a mix of shifts looking after the "old, old" in our aged care system.

Her inquiry, Caring Counts, is released tomorrow and outlines a 10-point plan based on evidence gathered from from nearly 900 participants over a 12-month period in 2011-12. "Everyone, bar two managers for a residential care provider, wanted higher pay and more status for carers."

She said she had seldom seen the level of agreement on a work-related issue as there was about the low pay of carers.

"We can address the indecency of poorly paid emotional labour, undertaken by often marginalised workers.

"We were repeatedly told the value we place on older people is linked to the value we place on their carers, and that sense of crisis is a reflection of the knowledge we are being unfair, and workers are being discriminated against."

Age Concern president Liz Baxendine slated the cult of the young. "The three Rs, rights, responsibilities and respect – but we need to think of older people as a resource."

A medical specialist said attitudes had to change. "It shouldn't be out of sight, out of mind."

Carers, nurses and managers who gave evidence were committed to their patients, talking of looking after them as family. One said it was an honour to be with them "as they left", because not all families cared, while another valued "the self-reward of knowing I've made a difference".

But funders were accused of exploiting that attachment and carers were disappointed by the attitudes they encountered. "Even other nurses think because it's a retirement home, we're retired too. They have no idea. People ask what you do, then say, `Oh you wipe bums."'

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McGregor said delays in fixing the problem could not continue.

"We should not accept further delay in addressing an inequality that's within our power to remedy."

Recommendations include an automatic top-10 Cabinet spot for the minister for older people, and for district health boards to be ordered to develop within three years a mechanism to achieve pay parity between their carers and those in home support and residential facilities.

Others include a five-star quality assurance system comparing residential facilities, and that the ministry and boards develop and review a travel policy each year that recognises vehicle costs and travel time.

There are also calls for providers and training groups to commit to ensuring all new staff achieve set qualifications within six months of starting, and that existing staff achieve them within two years. Within five years, a higher level still, should be the norm.

The report also calls for voluntary "indicators for safe aged-care and dementia-care for consumers" be made compulsory, and that the "Home and Community Support Sector" standard also be compulsory.

It recommends board annual reports make explicit, expectations about "passing through" annual funding increases, and detail travel and equal pay provisions in contracts, while Immigration New Zealand is told to ensure information about qualifications and registration is available overseas, and to develop best practice guidance for migrant workers.

There are also calls for leadership in recruiting more staff, the promotion of "encore careers", and to encourage part-time carers to increase their hours.

The National Council of Women told the inquiry it was impossible to value how important it was for a person to stay in their own home. "Their dignity and self-worth, being able to contribute to the community – these activities are impossible to accomplish in an institution."

- Sunday Star Times

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