Ofa Lalakai has worked for 16 years as a care worker at an Auckland aged care residential facility owned by one of New Zealand’s largest providers.
She loves her job, she has worked hard to complete a Level 3 qualification and has been an active supporter of Kristine Bartlett and her union’s equal pay campaign.
On 1 July this year, the equal pay settlement negotiated between the unions and the Government lifted Ofa’s pay by a massive 42%, from $16.52 to $23.50 an hour.
For Ofa, this means an end to always trying to get more hours, so she had a liveable income. Now, she can work fewer hours and she is less tired. She has more energy, not just at work but also for the care of her five children, and the two nephews she also cares for.
Ofa’s story is replicated around the country by tens of thousands of care and support workers.
For thirty years E tū and the NZ Nurses Organisation campaigned to improve the status of care workers through higher wages, minimum qualification levels, and safe staffing.
We have delivered three parliamentary petitions; participated in three Select Committee processes; been involved in two ministerial working parties; been involved in several Government and opposition-triggered inquiries, and the stories of our members featured prominently in the historically important Human Rights Commission Report, Caring Counts.
However, it was only with the Kristine Bartlett equal pay case that the unions finally gained the leverage to put those tens of thousands of words in all those submissions and reports into action.
The negotiations arising from the legal case began in 2015, and in 2017 two of our goals were finally delivered through the equal pay settlement: higher wage rates were locked in for five years and employers were required to ensure that all care workers progress to a Level 4 NZQA qualification within six years of commencing employment.
There have been some problems with the funding package negotiated between the Aged Care Association and the District Health Boards, which I hope can soon be rectified. But this should not detract from the justice of delivering higher pay for care workers, which has incredible public support.
This year, my 95-year-old mother moved into a residential aged care facility run by the same provider that employs Ofa Lalakai.
She has lived in our family home for 53 years and her move into this facility was not without some trepidation about losing her independence as well as the wonderful assistance of her home support workers, who visited her twice daily.
She wanted caring and supportive facility staff who understood her needs and would help her maintain her independence. She welcomed the equal pay settlement because she knew how important better paid and qualified care workers would be for her.
The only thing that she complains about now is that the care workers are sometimes too busy to give her the attention she needs.
While 2017 has been a bumper year for care workers, our third goal of safe staffing levels is still to be achieved.