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Who cares for care workers?

16 December 2020
Care profession vulnerabilities laid bare by pandemic
The intricacies of the employment-care work connection must be better factored into policy, a new expert report asserts. Now, more than ever, bolstered child, disability and aged care arrangements will benefit all Australians.

The bushfire and pandemic crises have exposed fundamental problems with Australia’s child-care, aged care and disability care systems. These problems must be fixed to ensure an economic recovery that includes all workers, a new expert report argues.

Produced by the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable – a research network of 33 academics from 17 universities – the report evaluated the performance of the care sector amid the challenges of 2020 and concluded that current policy settings for work, care and family are broken.

“Many formal care services for the aged, children, and for people with disability that were already under strain collapsed under the pressure of the pandemic,” Roundtable Co-Convenor, Associate Professor Elizabeth Hill from the University of Sydney School of Social and Political Sciences said.

“The crisis in care and employment has had an immediate and negative impact on gender equality and wellbeing in Australia, raising widespread concern about the shadow pandemics of domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse.

“Better care infrastructure will be required to enhance macro-economic stability and underpin growth as the economy recovers.”

Care services-employment connection

The Roundtable says that the crises of 2020 have laid bare and amplified widespread labour market inequalities which must be urgently addressed.

“There is a false economy of reliance on an under-resourced, precarious and low-wage workforce,” Co-Convenor, Professor Sara Charlesworth from RMIT University said.

She referred to the fact that those in precarious employment, especially in hospitality and retail, were, economically speaking, hardest hit by the pandemic.

“Lack of adequate income protection, paid sick leave and carers’ leave further entrenched worker vulnerability,” she said.

Within this group, women were more likely to be affected, as the majority of Australian women work in part-time or insecure jobs, often in highly feminised and low-paid occupations.

“Many women have struggled to manage the triple pandemic demands of supervising home-schooling, increased care responsibilities and paid work. This has led to widespread exhaustion and other health issues,” she said.

New approach ‘urgently’ needed

The authors argue that a new approach that recognises the interconnections of work and care across society and the economy is urgently needed.

First, there needs to be a set of universal workers’ rights that account for labour precarity and care responsibilities. Second, the government needs to invest in adequate care infrastructure, to ensure it is more accessible and reliable. Specific measures include universal free high quality early childhood education and care, and the extension of paid ‘care leave’, including paid parental leave for each parent, to all workers. Third, industry awards for care professions must be revitalised to fairly remunerate care workers and allow for career progression. Lastly, the authors urge the government to undertake policy evaluation, particularly as it impacts workers with caring responsibilities.

“Our aging population, declining fertility and low inbound migration make a new policy architecture for decent work and decent care essential for an inclusive and gender equal recovery,” Associate Professor Hill said.

“It is time to look beyond short-term budgets and toward long-term investment in a caring economy that delivers prosperity, equality, and a better life for all.”

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