Aged care nurses and personal carers at one of the country’s most profitable aged care providers are taking action for improved wages and conditions. Bupa workers across the health industry giant’s 26 Victorian aged care centres have been fighting for a new enterprise agreement since 2016.

While the Bupa Australia group last year reported profits of nearly $600 million, its aged care nurses and carers are among the lowest paid in the sector. They haven’t had a pay rise since April 2016. Aged care is just one part of BUPA’s private health empire. It also has large insurance, optical and dental care interests.

The workers, who are represented by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, are demanding wages comparable to those paid by other providers. But an improvement to staff-resident ratios is an equal priority for overworked staff. Federal laws do not prescribe minimum staffing levels in aged care facilities. Private homes are notorious for operating with skeleton staffing levels.

For example, the night staff at Bupa’s Ballarat facility are one nurse and four carers. These five workers are responsible for the care of 144 residents. “Bupa are terrible with staffing. If someone is sick, they just don’t replace them”, one Bupa worker told Red Flag. “The union is right not to give up until they do something about this.”

Bupa workers’ industrial action began on 27 September with workers wearing union shirts and handing out leaflets to the families of residents. From 9 October, they escalated the campaign to include a ban on completing aged care funding documentation, delaying Bupa’s receipt of government funding. Two-hour stoppages have also been implemented on a facility by facility basis.

Industrial action has achieved some results. Bupa’s opening offer was a one-year agreement with a 2.1 percent wage increase. Immediately prior to industrial action, it was up to a two-year deal with a 2.5 percent increase per year, and a week after the action started, the offer was lifted to 11.25 percent over three years, with back pay. It has refused to agree to any staffing improvements. The union says that it will not support an agreement that ignores nurses and carers’ workload concerns.

Aged care workers are a growing section of the working class. The Productivity Commission recently forecast that by 2050 the aged care workforce will be 1 million strong. The Bupa nurses and carers’ campaign is an important example of the sort of fight that is needed to win decent standards for staff and residents alike.

ANMF members and supporters are protesting outside Bupa’s Melbourne office on 25 October.