At rallies across the country on 12 May, the nurses’ union kicked off a national campaign to win nurse-resident ratios in aged care. While ratios currently set minimum staffing levels in Australia’s childcare centres and public hospitals, there are no minimum staff-resident ratios in most of the aged care sector. 

In Victoria, public aged care facilities have legislated ratios of a maximum of seven residents per nurse. Queensland has similar laws. These ratios were won by nurses’ struggles, beginning with the 1986 Victorian nurses’ strike. 

However, public nursing homes make up only a small fraction of the sector. In Victoria, there are only a few dozen facilities run by the state, compared to more than 700 for-profit facilities. The majority of Australia’s aged care residents live in homes owned by companies subject to no minimum staffing rules.

Aged care has undergone a marked transformation in the last decade. While the number of private operators – and their profits – has soared, so to0 has the number of aged care residents classified as requiring “high care”. 

At the same time, the proportion of aged care staff with nursing qualifications has dropped drastically. Personal care assistants – often on half the salary of a registered nurse – make up nearly 70 percent of the workforce. PCAs are increasingly performing tasks once undertaken by nurses. At numerous inquiries into the sector, nurses report working at homes where one nurse can be responsible for 100 residents.   

The Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation, which represents nurses and PCAs, points out that the huge profits made in the aged care sector largely come from government subsidies. Nursing ratios would ensure that more of this public money is directed to resident care and less to corporate balance sheets. 

So far it appears that the ANMF strategy for achieving nursing ratios will largely be focused on lobbying. The union has purchased billboard advertising to be displayed in Canberra. Industrial action must also be part of our strategy. Every upcoming enterprise agreement campaign must have nursing ratios as part of its log of claims.