Workers protest privatisation in aged care

Opposition has flared against the plans of both the Maribyrnong and Hobsons Bay City Councils in Melbourne’s west to outsource their home and community care services to private companies. Fears were aroused among the workforce last year when the councils began secret discussions about handing over service delivery through a tender. Workers and community members were excluded from the relevant council meetings.

The services in question involve highly skilled and well-trained workers, often with decades of experience, providing care and support in the homes of families, people with physical and psychiatric disabilities and the elderly.

Council home care workers belonging to the Australian Services Union (ASU) have united with residents to oppose the outsourcing, describing it as an attack on the workforce as well as on the vulnerable people who receive the services. 

Rene (not her real name) is a unionised aged care worker. She described to Red Flag what was under threat as a result of the changes: “The pay for one. The hours of guaranteed work, the limits on where you can be shipped to across the city; you don't have the same OHS, the flexibility of hours – the gamut, it’s everything. It’s the uncertainty. They say the words ‘You’re such an asset, you’re so important, you’re so valuable’, but they don’t mean it. It feels like they’re saying ‘Here’s the dole’”.

The negative effects of privatisation on service users have been proven time and again – profits come at the expense of quality care and accessibility. In September 2018 the ABC’s Four Corners program uncovered a list of shocking practices in residential aged care services, all flowing from the logic of the services for profit model. As Rene explains, “When you put it in the private sector, it’s about profit. When you’re in the private sector, it’s no longer about the needs of the person”.

A campaign led by the ASU has spent months collecting hundreds of signatures on petitions, talking with the community about the threatened changes and finally organising a series of rowdy protests at the council meetings in which councillors would discuss and vote on the outsourcing. Protesters chanted, “Don’t you dare abandon aged care” and held signs reading “Subcontracting kills job security” and “Don’t cut aged care – keep it council”.

All indications are that council managements are worried about this resistance. In addition to the secretive process that facilitated the outsourcing, the day before the 19 February meeting in which Hobsons Bay councillors were to discuss the process behind closed doors, management sent a letter encouraging staff planning to attend the meeting to consider their “conditions of employment”. Workers who attended despite the threats observed councillors anxiously peering through blinds while the workers held a meeting on the nearby grass with their supporters.

The councils say they will find a service provider that will offer the same conditions of employment. But the aged care sector is rife with companies that pay abusive wages, offer appalling conditions and refuse to employ appropriate numbers of staff, all practices exposed by Four Corners. 

The councils also say they can’t afford to provide home care services. But Lisa Damanin, secretary of the ASU, explained that the 19 February Hobsons Bay council meeting was informed that its operational surplus for this financial year had increased by $6 million to more than $23 million. Meanwhile, Maribyrnong council imposed one of the largest rate increases in the state this year.

The lies to support outsourcing and privatisation – spoken by Liberal, Labor and Greens councillors on both councils – don’t connect with ordinary people. And the truth – that it’s a rort to hand off responsibility for delivering services to wealthy and powerful corporate friends who can squeeze profits out of workers and service recipients with less accountability – can’t be spoken.

Following delays and obfuscation, both councils this week have confirmed to staff that they will continue with the outsourcing process. Rene sees the issue for what it is:

“I don’t know how those councillors sleep at night. They didn’t hear two sides, they didn’t hear the story from the workers. But I don’t think we’re lying down as easily as they expect us to. People are angry.”

With privatisation so widespread, any and all resistance to it needs to be supported and built on. The campaigns by Maribyrnong and Hobsons Bay council workers and communities took guts, brains and organisation. Their resistance, which shows the potential that exists to link up workers and service users, should serve as encouragement to the next victims of privatisation.