Resthome spy hails saint-like workers

UNDER-COVER: Equal opportunities commissioner Judy McGregor.
PHIL DOYLE/Fairfax NZ
UNDER-COVER: Equal opportunities commissioner Judy McGregor.

After six shifts working as a carer, Judy McGregor was mentally and physically exhausted.

Spending hours on her feet, lifting, hoisting, feeding, bathing, dressing and toileting her charges took its toll – and for just $14 an hour, the Human Rights Commission's equal opportunities commissioner compares it to a form of modern-day slavery.

"The complexity of the job was actually a surprise for me. It's quite physical work, and it's emotionally draining because you are obliged to give of yourself to other people," she said.

"Saint-like women do it every day so that older New Zealanders can have a quality of life."

Dr McGregor went undercover in a residential aged care hospital as part of an investigation into workers' conditions, which she condemns in her report Caring Counts. Her work followed a challenge issued by the Home Health Association to all politicians and policy makers to spend some time working as a carer so as to understand what it entails.

"I thought well, that's fair enough, because we sit well away from the industry and we don't know what it's like but we profess to be able to write about it," Dr McGregor said.

The former journalist secured an unpaid position as trainee, "buddied" to a carer. Had she wanted to get a fulltime job, this would have been the pathway – but even if that had been the case, she doesn't know whether she would have been up to it.

"I'm not sure if I could have. I'm not sure I had the physical stamina and I didn't want to hurt someone.

"On any given shift you would be in charge of six, seven older people, and you would have to wake them, get them up, get them showered, get them toileted, feed them, and the whole time you were conscious that you had another five to go on your shift. It's like working constantly to deadline."

Although there were hoists to pull people from beds, there was still a lot of heavy lifting, and she was constantly worried she would hurt or drop someone.

She had been paid more in a previous job working in a bookshop, and been far less stressed, she said. "At the end of the day, carers are being paid less than the minimum wage for work that is grossly undervalued."

The Government said yesterday that it would carefully consider her report after it prompted a flurry of support for underpaid carers.

Associate Health Minister Jo Goodhew said: "It is important that we take this seriously, that we look at it carefully and we look at what we are doing and what we can do before we provide a considered response."

The Government would invest more than $1.4 billion in aged care this year, and spending had increased by 4 per cent each year since 2008. Many of the report's recommendations were consistent with current policy, she said.

A new mandatory standard for carers would be rolled out in the next two years, and the Health Ministry was working on a travel policy to more consistently fund rural travel for home-based carers.

But New Zealand Council of Trade Unions spokeswoman Eileen Brown said the report verified a "disturbing reality" about aged care.

"It's not new, but the fact it has been raised by the Human Rights Commission is a very powerful signal. This is a call to action."

Pay and work conditions had been a concern since the 1990s, and had continued to worsen.

"That's a reflection that care isn't really valued. It's seen as women's work, and it's not really seen as a skilled job. We know it is and that this workforce of 46,000 should have the entitlement to skills training, pay, and improved conditions that everyone expects."

The New Zealand Home Health Association chief executive Julie Haggie said an objective report was long overdue, and the organisation looked forward to working with the Government to implement the recommendations.

HARD GRAFT FOR LOW PAY

Nearly all the aged care staff Dr Judy McGregor worked with were women, who were being discriminated against by earning low wages for difficult work that was "grossly undervalued" by society, she found.

"The reliance of New Zealand, of all of us, 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," she said in the report.

"It exploits the goodwill of women, it is a knowing exploitation. We can claim neither ignorance nor amnesia."

Dr McGregor's inquiry is also based on evidence gathered from 900 participants over 12 months in 2011-12.

Among her recommendations was a Government-led move for pay parity – at present, carers working for in-home support and residential facilities earn on average $3 less an hour than those employed by district health boards.

She also called for higher training and safety standards, recommended that the minister with responsibility for older people should have a top 10 Cabinet ranking, and that a "five-star" rating system of quality assurance be implemented comparing residential facilities.

The Dominion Post