Pay rates for people looking after the elderly have been called a scandal amid a "sense of crisis" in the aged care sector.
The comments come after the Human Rights Commission examined the sector for 12 months and gathered evidence from 886 participants.
Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor went undercover and worked in a residential aged care hospital for several days as a "buddy", attached to an experienced healthcare assistant.
She reported that long hours, short breaks and relentless routines in the home where she worked.
"You can't imagine it, you cannot understand it, and you don't get it, if you haven't done it," she said in her report.
Palmerston North's Chiswick Park senior healthcare assistant Bev Wickenden said she felt aged care workers were underpaid and an increase in salary would ensure more people of the right calibre joined the industry.
"They are worth their weight in gold and I wish we had more of them, and more money would help. Then we would get people who have the skills."
Mrs Wickenden recently fought for higher pay for workers during the Oceania pay dispute.
The Service and Food Workers Union national secretary John Ryall said the report identified a sense of crisis in the aged care sector that his union had been highlighting for a long time.
"The poverty wages, low staffing levels and lack of training in aged care are a national scandal which must be addressed without further delay."
Dr McGregor said that in her time as Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner there had seldom been the degree of unanimity about a work-related issue than there was about the low pay of carers.
Her report said that all except two people, managers for a residential aged care provider, wanted higher pay and more status for those working as carers.
Dr McGregor said other issues included the use of tie-down restraints, rationing of incontinence pads, falls from hoists and shortages of equipment. But she saw only high levels of care in the facility where she worked.
The report recommended the aged care portfolio be handled by a minister in the Cabinet top 10, pay parity between healthcare assistants working in health boards and carers working in home support and residential facilities, and standardising qualification levels for caregivers.
Having a five-star system of quality assurance, comparing residential facilities to improve consumer choice and public accountability, was also recommended.
"The HRC is spot-on," said Mr Ryall.
"A fundamental human right is being breached by inaction on pay equality in the aged care sector. The workforce is marginalised, despite the fact that these workers undertake the care of some of the most vulnerable New Zealanders."
Mr Ryall said it was scandalous for caregivers in aged care to be paid an average of $14.50 an hour, when their counterparts in public hospitals were paid more.
Prime Minister John Key this morning said DHBs will not be given more money to raise the pay of low-paid aged care workers because the Government has other priorities in the health sector.
- Manawatu Standard
Is this the best summer ever?Related story: Wellington sizzles in January heat