With migrant workers making up a large percentage of the aged care workforce, it’s more important than ever for employers to recognise and acknowledge the diversity of their staff.

New Zealand’s first Professor of Diversity, Dr Edwina Pio, from the Auckland University of Technology, says people often fail to recognise the heterogeneity that exists among migrant aged care workers, the majority of whom come from South-East Asia, China and India.

Take views on gender equality, for example, says Pio. The Philippines are one of the most gender equal countries in Asia and Filipino workers reflect this and often have similar views to New Zealanders on gender equality; whereas gender equality in countries like China and India indicate that women in these countries are often treated unequally and this also depends on their level of education and whether they are from rural or urban areas in India.

“The heterogeneity or variation of worldviews of [migrant workers] is not necessarily seen by employers and therefore the training that is given is often a package deal, like a one-size-fits-all for these migrants.”

Failing to recognize the diversity of their staff is just one reason for the one-size-fits-all approach by organizations and their managers. Another is a fear of getting a penalty for doing the wrong thing, even inadvertently.

“Managers have to become like immigration officers,” says Pio.

They’re also working under very pressurised environments with very complex problems, she says.

Some of this complexity stems from the fact that the ethnic diversity of the workforce is not mirrored by that of the residents. Walk into any rest home in New Zealand and the majority of residents are likely to be Pākeha.

A big challenge for managers can be to balance staff diversity while keeping residents happy at the same time. The old ‘customer is always right’ mantra can be difficult to follow, when the customer is a resident making a blatant racist request, such as asking specifically for a white nurse.

“Or a man who has been in the war and sees a person who he thinks is Japanese and because of the Asian features tries to attack that person,” says Pio, by way of example. “Dementia plays a part in this too.”

“Managers are often white too and therefore their own templates are quite often more Euro-centric or Anglo-Saxon, which doesn’t mean that they don’t try – they do – but then where’s the time and energy?”

Pio says homophily – when we seek out people who look like us – plays a big part in all of this.

“How do we move out of that mindset of ‘if someone looks like me they are likely to be like me? And if they don’t look like me they are the out group’?”

The current immigration policy settings also make it challenging for migrant aged care workers to lay down roots in New Zealand.

“Migrants think ‘what if in the end I do these programmes and I don’t get my residency?’ so there might also be reluctance. They might think ‘let’s go to Australia where we get paid much more’,” says Pio.

This leads managers to question how much time they should invest in ethno-centricism and cross-cultural communication.

Yet it is still vital to make time for training in these areas, says Pio. She quotes Bette Midler: “’You have to give a little, take a little and let our hearts break a little’ in the whole process of what we do.”

“I think the openness to learning becomes critical,” she says.

Pio says it’s important to look after the health and safety of the residents and the core workers by investing time into their training, even if migrant workers do leave after two years.

She suggests keeping a fixed time in the week to do some cross-cultural training and making this a priority.

Co-created programmes are the way forward in Pio’s opinion. Encourage residents to be part of the process. Establish a buddy system. Put group-based activities in place. Lay out clear career pathways.

When creating such programmes, it’s important to consider the differing emotional and spiritual backgrounds of migrant workers, she says. For example, many migrant workers come from different countries where the main religion is not Christianity.

At the same time, however, it is important to hold on to humour – especially as aged care workers are in the business of caring for people in the last stages of their lives and dying and death is an ubiquitous part of their daily work.

“We shouldn’t have reverse racism where those who are white feel like ‘oh my gosh, we can’t even joke around now and have banter’.”

Pio recognises that many organisations are on the right track, but there’s still a long way to go.

“Progress is very slow. And with the aged care population projections rising rapidly, progress in how nurses and aged care workers enter this country and then how they are managed by their places of work require urgent attention.

“So I think we have to move much faster. I’m wondering if we need to be quite clear in terms of guidelines, policies, procedures, review systems for inter-cultural competence.”

Ultimately, Pio thinks it is important that all groups – the source country, the receiving country, caregivers and nurses, employers, and residents – put aside arrogance and use compassion and kindness instead.

Pio will be one of the panellists for the Culture and Diversity in the Workplace panel discussion at the NZACA conference next month – a session not to be missed. These issues are bound to resonate with many aged care providers.

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