The release of the Inquiry’s report is timely. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the prevalence of insecure and casualised employment and the negative impacts that precarious employment can have on health and wellbeing, particularly for those working in the gig economy.
In particular, COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief a problem that had been identified pre-pandemic: that is, our industrial relations framework has not kept pace with changes to the labour market, and neither has government policy.
For example, paid sick leave is an entitlement that not only protects individual workers, but keeps workplaces and communities safe. During COVID-19, we have seen the devastating health and economic consequences of casual workers not having access to this entitlement. During the first months of the pandemic, before financial support packages were announced, many casual or gig workers had to make hard decisions between putting food on the table by going to work while potentially unwell or staying home, forgoing income and going without.
This Inquiry’s recommendations identify necessary and timely changes for systemic reform of an outdated industrial relations framework, and underline the importance and benefits of safe workplaces and high-quality services for workers, consumers and the community.
COVID-19 has magnified the urgency of addressing key policy and industrial issues associated with the gig economy. For example:
- For many young workers, hospitality and retail are common pathways into work. These industries have been amongst the hardest hit by the pandemic. With the loss of these pathways, many young workers will attempt to piece together an income via multiple jobs. It is likely that platform work will assume even greater prominence as an entry-level pathway for young people.
- The pandemic has had a gendered impact. The burden of unpaid care has fallen disproportionately on women. Women have been more likely to take on additional caring responsibilities such as supporting their children through remote and flexible learning. Women, more than men, have been unable to engage in employment due to restricted access to early childhood education and care services. Even as restrictions ease, there will continue to be significant care needs in the community, that will continue to be shouldered by women, and women are likely to face other barriers to labour market participation in the context of the recession. The gender pay gap and increased financial insecurity experienced by women could be compounded by the potential increased uptake of platform work in a constrained economic environment. As more families face financial vulnerability as a result of income loss, women may increasingly engage in platform work to find employment opportunities while juggling caring responsibilities.
- The community services industry – an industry which is essential to individual and community wellbeing and the healthy functioning of society – has been hamstrung for many years by low indexation, insecure funding, and the cost of reform implementation. As a consequence, the industry has been characterised by short-term contracts, insecure work and casualisation, and workforce shortages. An increase in market-driven systems driven by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and Home Care Packages has contributed to a rise in employees having to work across multiple platforms or employers, and sometimes across multiple sectors, to make ends meet. These issues – a major problem pre-pandemic – have become a central concern during COVID-19, particularly in relation to aged care and disability support. This sector is the focus of our submission.
The Federal Government should take a leadership role to implement these changes, however, in the absence of timely action from the Commonwealth, the Victorian Government must ensure appropriate steps are taken to implement the Inquiry’s recommendations where possible.
The care sector
- Evaluate the impacts and lessons of care workforce and service provider interventions, including worker mobility schemes, to inform future policy responses and pricing and improve service quality and consistency.
- Explore opportunities to leverage the Victorian Disability Worker Regulation Scheme to strengthen, support and coordinate the disability workforce.
- Support ongoing investment in attracting, retaining and up-skilling the care workforce, through the continuation of free TAFE and other training opportunities.
- Boost supports for students to increase retention in accredited training
- Engage in and encourage national collaboration to clarify worker and provider obligations, enhance service quality and safety, and establish consistent and comprehensive safeguarding mechanisms in the aged and disability sector.
The prevalence of independent contractors and the use of digital platforms in the care sector (namely healthcare and social assistance workers) has risen in recent years and is aligned to the transition to consumer-choice, market-driven systems such as the NDIS and Home Care Packages.
The Inquiry’s report acknowledges that the flexibility and choice of platforms can support people with disability and older people to choose workers who meet their needs and share their interests. VCOSS strongly supports consumer choice, control and agency, and values the potential of market-driven systems to offer personalised support options. Platforms may help fill service gaps, stimulate innovation, and encourage new workers to join the sector. The use of platforms can also reduce the responsibilities of NDIS participants who self-manage their package, as platforms manage administration and payments.
However, there are unique challenges that should be addressed to boost service quality and provide appropriate safeguards for workers and service users.
Broader changes to industrial relations laws, as recommended in the Inquiry’s report, will address some of the challenges faced by workers in this sector. However, this will not – on its own – be a panacea.
A safe workforce is a healthy workforce. COVID-19 has highlighted the heightened financial vulnerability of workers in the care sector, a lack of coordination and consistency in training, entitlements and protections, and the fragility of support systems in maintaining consistent, quality care.
Workers engaged in the gig economy, who work across multiple platforms or a mixture of platform and more traditional employment types, have no access, or limited access to sick leave and other entitlements. Wages vary across platforms, and time and travel costs between shifts are not compensated. Health, safety and workers compensation arrangements depend on a worker’s employment status. Self-managing NDIS participants who directly employ their own workers are responsible for tax, super, public liability insurance, work health and safety including workers compensation insurance, safety screenings, and negotiating pay and conditions (which does not have to align to industry awards).
The dispersed nature of the care workforce makes it difficult to identify, train and mobilise workers in usual times and in times of crisis. Training, supervision and mentoring cannot be consistently provided and adequately monitored, which is particularly concerning for new or inexperienced workers. Governments and funders, who have little oversight of and connection to the workforce, are less able to coordinate and implement surge workforce capacity.
In response to the pandemic, interventions were introduced to limit the movement of disability and aged care workers across multiple sites, with payments made available to offset lost wages. However, these interventions were introduced months after the WHO declaration of the pandemic, and in the interim, workers and service providers had to manage these challenges without access to vital additional support. Third parties were engaged to provide surge workforce capacity with mixed outcomes.
An evaluation of these interventions should be undertaken to explore lessons learnt and identify the flow-on benefits of minimising worker movement for workers and consumers alike. The limitations of NDIS pricing may have limited the capacity of providers to reduce worker mobility prior to the pandemic.
The NDIA should examine and boost NDIS pricing to reflect the true costs of service delivery and promote access to consistent, best-practice, evidence-based support.
People receiving support and care in residential services, their own home or the community have had services cancelled, reduced or delivered remotely. People with support booked through a platform may have less protection and fewer back-up options if shifts are cancelled. Where services have continued face-to-face, fears of infection have been high.
Inquiries into the harrowing neglect of South Australian woman Anne-Marie Smith, who was supported by one carer with minimal oversight and supervision, along with the work of the disability and aged care Royal Commissions, have highlighted a range of risks, workforce issues and safeguarding gaps.
The pandemic has proved, now more than ever, the need for a safe, skilled and sustainable care workforce. Care workers should be supported to build and maintain their skills and expertise and be provided appropriate and adequate entitlements to ensure they do not place themselves or other community members at inadvertent risk to earn a livable wage.
The introduction of the Victorian Disability Worker Commission (VDWC), and its worker registration function from July 2021, provides an opportunity to strengthen, support and coordinate the disability workforce. While the details of the registration function continue to be developed, the Victorian Government should consider how this initiative could be leveraged to connect with, support and upskill on-demand disability workers.
COVID-19 has also highlighted the gaps and inconsistencies in care workers’ access to appropriate training and professional development for their substantive role and in specific skills such as infection prevention and control.
As demand for aged care and disability workers continues to increase in the coming years, governments should invest in initiatives to attract, upskill and engage the care workforce. Through deep and broad consultation with workers, service users, advocates and representative organisations, service providers, training institutions and peak bodies, workforce capability frameworks and a pathway to transition towards minimum qualifications should be established. While these initiatives will require collaboration and agreement across federal, state and territory governments, particularly in relation to planning and funding, the Victorian Government can continue to lead the way in this space through the work of the VDWC, by maintaining free access to TAFE for priority courses, and by advocating through intergovernmental councils and committees. Any progression towards minimum qualifications should ensure workers do not bear the financial impact and are not deterred from working in the sector.
Through regulatory mechanisms, including the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and state-based bodies, on-boarding requirements for workers should be strengthened and insurance, superannuation, and health and safety responsibilities should be clarified. Safety screening processes should be consistent and robust across providers, platforms and self-managed arrangements. Workers should also complete regular, mandatory training about their responsibilities and obligations under codes of conduct, rights charters and standards, and be well informed about avenues to raise issues and complaints in relation to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
This submission was prepared by Rhiannon Wapling and Talisha Ohanessian and authorised by VCOSS CEO Emma King. For enquiries please contact Deborah Fewster at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A fully accessible version is available online at vcoss.org.au/policy/
 The Hon Daniel Andrews, Media release: Supporting Victorian workers to get tested and stay home, 23 July 2020; Services Australia, Pandemic leave payment if you live in Victoria, 5 August 2020.
 NDIA, Directly engaging your own staff, 16 April 2019
 H Dickinson, G Carey and A Kavanagh, Personalisation and pandemic: an unforeseen collision course?, Disability & Society, 35:6, 1012-1017, June 2020.
 The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Media release: Support for aged care residents and aged care workers across Victoria, 20 July 2020; The Hon Daniel Andrews MP, Media release: Working together to protect Victorians with disabilities, 21 August 2020.