South Australian aged care workers see red
by Peter Mac Nursing in general is a particularly gruelling occupation, and particularly badly paid. Within recent years industrial action has won pay increases, but many Australian state governments have still had to mount special recruitment campaigns to overcome critical nursing staff shortages. Much of the public image of nursing has been generated by television fiction, which frequently depicts nursing as a difficult occupation, but exciting and even, at times, romantic. The reality could hardly be more different, particularly for nurses caring for the aged. Many members of the public are largely unaware of what's involved in aged care nursing. The work is physically arduous, since the patients are often weak but heavy, and require frequent lifting and turning. Aged care nurses deal with a wide range of medical problems including a high proportion of ailments associated with ageing, such as Alzheimer's disease and incontinence. Many aged patients require treatment for high levels of ongoing pain. Because most patients are in their care for very long periods of time, nursing staff must also organise a wide range of social activities for them. And, unlike hospital nurses, aged care nurses must also face the traumatic prospect that most of their patients will die in their care. Nevertheless, pay and conditions for aged care nurses are even worse than for general nurses. For example, nurses in South Australia currently earn between 14 and 21 percent less than hospital nurses. The number of Registered nurses in SA fell from 1502 to 1398, between June 2001 and June 2002. Last week South Australian aged care nurses held an "I see red" day of action as part of their campaign for fair pay, safer staffing levels, greater resources and support, and to raise community awareness of issues involved in their work. Lee Thomas, South Australian State Secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation, pointed out that it was the first time aged care nurses and personal care assistants had mounted such a campaign. She commented: "If aged care employers do not take the issues of fair pay and safe staffing seriously, we are likely to see a further decline in the number of nurses working in this sector." Despite the critical shortage of aged care nurses in SA, private employers are still resisting demands for improvements in pay, particularly regarding wage parity with the public sector. Ms Thomas added: "We have been very clear with Aged Care employers. The agreement struck between the ANF and the State Government in the public sector, is the benchmark. Our members will accept nothing less."