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Don’t try this at home: the domestic worker model of care

I have just returned from the World Congress of Sociology in Toronto, Canada. Like the Olympics, this is held every four years in a different part of the world. With about 5000 people registered and big-name researchers and theorists attending from around the world, the congress provides a unique opportunity to take a global and comparative view of social developments.

Care and caregiving emerged as major topics this year, with no less than eight separate sessions scheduled at the congress. This is the first time these topics have received such prominence.

At the level of basic social theory, this is long overdue recognition that care is an essential condition for human life. Without care, individuals, families, communities and nations could not exist. Nor could the international economy. Understanding the dynamics of how care is organised, how its provision changes under different social conditions, and how these arrangements affect other parts of social life must be regarded as key tasks for the discipline.

In the research presented and in the ongoing debates at the congress, much attention was given to the ‘crisis in care’. This concept was first used to describe the emerging situation in advanced societies, where the need for care changed and expanded at the very time that women increasingly entered the workforce in search of careers and paid employment.

The crisis in care soon came to refer also to economic and political problems encountered as a result of the need for policy responses that could help provide alternative forms of support – including more and better childcare, and care for ageing populations and people of all ages with disabilities.

Increasingly, the crisis in care is seen by social researchers as an international crisis. This reflects the fact that in many so-called wealthy countries, stopgap measures have emerged that rely on female domestic care workers from developing countries. In this approach, care is typically provided by women employed by families as live-in domestic workers who receive minimal weekly or monthly payments, along with board and food.

These domestic care workers may be from disadvantaged national communities, such as African-Americans or Hispanics in the US, or from rural communities in modern urbanised China or India. In the US, Canada, many Western European countries and increasingly in Asia, they come from economically disadvantaged countries and are granted a temporary work visa for a year or two each time. This is usually granted only to the woman worker, who, if married, is therefore forced to leave her children and husband in their homeland.

Such domestic care workers typically earn much less than other local workers. They are also responsible for sending back what meagre savings they can to support their own family at home.

Often the insecurity of such employment and residency status is aggravated by the fact that householders may confiscate the care worker’s passport and threaten to take her to the police or immigration authorities if she complains or does not do all that is demanded of her.

This model is not one we are very familiar with in Australia. To my mind it reflects traditional employment patterns in feudal societies, where the poor were taken in by wealthy families to provide household support. Upstairs/downstairs, a world of subservient butlers, nannies and maids. Such domestic employees have few, if any, rights.

With the exception of family daycare, childcare services in Australia and New Zealand, as well as a number of comparable countries, are generally provided by employed staff who meet professional training requirements and are employed and paid under national pay awards. Similar arrangements are found in aged care and in disability support.

Outside the family, alternative forms of assistance may involve volunteers. For example, in Meals on Wheels services, such volunteers generally work under carefully supervised conditions and are held accountable by the organisations for which they work.

In Australia, there have been calls by some for the introduction of short-term work visas with restricted employment rights. This could be nannies in childcare, or care workers in the aged and disability fields. Those in favour argue that the cheap cost of such labour would reduce the costs of care, making it more widely accessible. Such a program would be likely to displace the existing workforce in aged and childcare, undercutting what are acknowledged as at best modest wages.

There are echoes of such an approach in the rise of disruptive internet-based care matching services. It sounds cute and friendly. Like on a dating site, potential employees post a profile online, while those in need of care look through the profiles, select and try out potential employees, then pay them directly. Of course, there is also a fee paid to the hosts of the web service, typically as high as 10 or 20 per cent of each hourly payment. But as they are not actually the employers and have never met the care workers, the web hosts take little or no responsibility for the quality of the care provided or the security of care workers.

Sadly, the research presented at the congress suggests the direct employment approach is not a solution to the crisis in care – it is rather a major contributing cause, exacerbating, rather than relieving problems.

I came away thinking of the famous warning: Don’t try this at home!

Michael Fine is an honorary professor in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University.

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  1. Many thanks Michael for such a graphic reminder about the importance of ensuring we have the right people to provide care . As a provider we hear many comments about being more innovative , reducing overheads and not wasting the client’s money ( amongst other things)however, it is important that providers draw a line in the sand re what is accepable or unacceptable re staffing models . This example is clearly unacceptable . I hope we will hear soon from the Minister soon the governments response to the Aged Care Workforce Strategy Report.

  2. Kate Lambert, CEO, Daughterly Care

    Thought provoking article Michael, thank you. We hear all the time at Australian conferences about the ‘crisis of care’ being caused by older people living longer, which is a great success story. I had overlooked that part of the problem is also that women being less available to provide the free-care they have traditionally provided, so now as a society, we must pay for greater hours of care from professional paid care workers. Certainly, with our enormous house prices adult children are less available to help their aged parents as they work long hours, sometimes 2 jobs, to afford their mortgage, even though most older people are able to live in their own homes thanks to help from their adult children. I agree Aged Care Standards impose high outcomes for Approved Providers that an internet-matching-service alone cannot meet. At the same time, we have Approved Providers brokering work to organisations who only employ non-resident foreigners whilst pretending their at-law-employees are contractors, who they don’t train, pay income tax for or payroll tax on or hold Workers Compensation for, against all the rules. Why? because they are cheap – their cost to the client barely above the award and super cost of employing staff. They are cheap and they are illegal and you wonder how Approved Providers are meeting standards brokering to such organisations. It’s important that the Govt keep an even playing field to protect all care workers and all Approved Providers who follow the rules.

  3. Thank you Michael for sharing your recent experience with us from your attendance of the World Congress of Sociology in Toronto, Canada. It is extremely worrying to think that even at this time when we are uncovering abuse and neglect across the aged care sector that any government or independent organization/family would consider this form of employment to be acceptable and to be considered progressive. Standards of training have been in focus and at last there seems to be a bipartisan commitment to have more accountability in the training sector with the closure and removal of funding from the some identified rogue elements (training/providers). The newly introduced standards currently are in motion and by 1st July 2019 all service providers in the aged /community sector should be complying. I do hope their funding is not just stall but taken back and returned to the taxpayer even if this means the result is in the closure of some but please no more slaps on the wrist and as has been at times the perception of collusion of familiarization with accreditation/government teams. Our elderly should never be cheated through the cheapening of care by unscrupulous people wanting to make money out of them and take no responsibility.