Low paid, female dominated and deregulated. That’s Homecare in a snapshot.
Care workers have places of work, rather than workplaces; some are employees engaged by non-government organisations that receive funding to deliver care, others are sole traders being connected to clients via gig economy platforms. Some are both.
Precarious insecure work is the primary model through which home care is delivered to our loved ones all around the country, in fact all around the world, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
So how do we as unions and the party of workers position care work as a job for the future while prosecuting an agenda that seeks secure and well-paid work and a strong industrial relations system. We do this by leading and stepping out into the unknown, rather than retreating into the relative safety of the business-as-usual life support model of the past. We have to engage care workers in a conversation about how they can build collective power in a deregulated environment and by providing them the tools and skills development to do this.
The Role of Digital
This is what we have been doing in our union, the United Workers Union, and formerly in our legacy union, United Voice. Care workers are some of our most digitally literate members. Smart phones have been used by providers and digital disrupters to train and roster care workers and to deliver them crucial policy and safety information. They are also being used by our member leaders to identify issues and potential leaders and to build their union.
Our member leaders are adept at using Facebook, Slack, thru texting and Zoom. Some train other care workers in using platforms such as thru text, others are UnionSmart experts (UnionSmart being the bot we have built to enable care worker members to know their rights). These are the tools and platforms via which they connect with each-other and organise other care workers.
Care workers love to get together in person and when they do (which is rare in this COVID world we are living in) they share stories and connect deeply. As with all distributed organising, the occasional face to face meet up pays dividends for months to come.
Our staff team and care worker member leaders run welcome calls for new members, many of whom become more involved in their union as a result.
Our members are part of the care economy, a part of the broader economy that is female dominated and that touches every family and community in every part of the country. And while the logistics and mechanics of scheduling care work can be and are being automated, care work is low carbon work that cannot be fully automated. Geographical communities that have relied on coal and gas for jobs and economic prosperity would do well to think about the role the care economy could play in their economic futures.
But for this to be viable care workers need to organise and build the power needed to win better pay and security in a deregulated world. The experiment we are doing in the United Workers Union matters as what we win for care workers will flow on for other distributed workers. If we find a way to lift the value of these jobs and further localise care work, the care economy could provide secure jobs for workers and their families impacted by both automation and climate change. Australia has an ageing population & as we all get older the desire to age in place in our own homes grows – creating demand for more and more care economy jobs, making this an industry worth fighting to get right.
Service industry jobs of the future are people centred jobs that require strong emotional resilience and emotional intelligence, qualities we see in abundance in United Workers Union members working in home care, disability & aged care and early childhood education. While the mechanisms through which work and information are delivered are likely to become increasingly digital and distributed, the work itself needs to be delivered by humans and the more locally the better. Future ALP governments need to invest in care workers and the care economy, both financially and strategically. A forever industry that touches the lives of everyone deserves our attention.
Mel Gatfield is the National Director – Food & Beverages and the NSW State Secretary of the UWU.