Grant Brookes, Health First candidate for Capital & Coast District Health Board
Aged care is in crisis. It’s headline news. In August, pay cuts of up to $100 a week for staff at Ranfurly Rest Home and Hospital in Auckland were the lead story on Campbell Live (When your employer proposes a pay cut). In early September, an inquiry into shocking neglect of elderly residents at Wellington’s Malvina Major Home was front page news in the Dominion Post (Rest Home failed all its residents, Ministry says)
Although the mainstream media reported these as isolated issues, in reality they are the tip of an iceberg.
The systemic crisis has been clear for at least the last three years. In 2010, opposition MPs Sue Kedgley and Winnie Laban led an alternative inquiry into aged care, after National Party members of the health select committee blocked a formal parliamentary inquiry. (October 2010 Aged Care Report)
And it was confirmed last December by the Caring Counts report, published by the Human Rights Commission. This found that the predominantly female workforce in aged care – many of whom are new migrants – and the elderly people they look after are undervalued and discriminated against. (Report of the Inquiry into the Aged Care Workforce)
The situation for support workers, often working alone to help elderly people in their homes, is largely invisible. But it’s probably even worse.
Aged care in New Zealand is suffering the ravages of neoliberal capitalism. Today’s crisis flows from the privatisation and deregulation of the sector over the last 25 years.
Up until the 1980s, rest homes were mainly run by charities. But by 2010, over two thirds of residential facilities were privately owned and run for profit.
The industry is dominated by multinational corporations, banks and private equity firms. A third of the beds nationwide are provided by six large chains.
One of them is Ryman Healthcare. Ryman owns the Malvina Major Home, of Dominion Post fame, where a confused elderly woman was repeatedly left lying in her own faeces.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there were legal minimum staffing levels for homes like this. But in 2002, deregulation removed minimum staffing requirements.
Ryman Healthcare receives $800 million a year from the taxpayer. How much of this goes straight into the pockets of investors is unknown, as the company is not obliged to account for this public money.
It is known, however, that on night shifts they employ just one or two nurses to look after the 200 residents at Malvina Major. Is it any wonder that residents are sometimes neglected?
The aged care crisis has been the focus of a decade of campaigning by the three unions representing in the sector – the Nurses Organisation, the Service & Food Workers Union Nga Ringa Tota and the PSA.
But the proportion of workers who belong to a union, while higher than the private sector average, is much lower than in the public health system.
In 2006, union density across aged care averaged 20 percent. This has weakened the ability of workers use industrial action to press for change.
Despite this, aged care has featured prominently in strike statistics in recent years, winning modest improvements (or limiting the deterioration) for workers and residents in some places.
But given the relative industrial weakness, the unions have also turned to political campaigning. Because District Health Boards administer the funding contracts with aged care providers, elected members of the DHBs do have some influence.
The PSA is lobbying DHB candidates to commit to pay justice for contracted out home support workers, including equal pay with those directly employed by the DHBs (Time to Care).
The SFWU is calling on DHB candidates to support its Living Wage campaign (www.livingwage.org.nz), and its minimum hourly rate of $18.40.
And the Nurses Organisation is asking candidates to sign a pledge, including commitments to the Living Wage and equal pay for nurses and caregivers in aged care compared with their DHB counterparts (DHB Elections 2013, NZNO).
Standing as a candidate for Capital & Coast District Health Board, I am proud to continue my years of involvement in the battle for aged care by supporting these union campaigns.