Like many aged care workers in New Zealand, Mark Alviola, clinical manager at Bupa’s David Lange Care Home in Auckland, is from the Philippines. Although he misses his family, Alviola enjoys the safety that life here offers and believes New Zealand has much to offer health care workers like himself.

The Manila Times reported this month that a Filipino caregiver needs only to work around five weeks in New Zealand to earn the equivalent of his annual salary in the Philippines. Apparently, more than 6,000 Filipinos are leaving the Philippines every day in search of better paid work around the globe. New Zealand’s dairy and aged care industries both offer great opportunities for migrant workers.

Why New Zealand needs migrant aged care workers

New Zealand needs migrant workers as much as they need us. As our ageing population continues to steadily increase, so does the need for more aged care workers to support these older people.

Increasingly, we need to look beyond our borders for workers to help meet this demand. A 2014 report by Callister & Associates showed that in the 1990s overseas-born aged caregivers made up approximately 20 per cent of the workforce. By 2006 this had risen to a quarter; by 2013, 31 per cent (in Auckland, 57 per cent) of caregivers were born overseas.

Why are migrants filling these roles? Why are more New Zealanders not putting their hands up for these roles?

It is no secret, thanks to the work of Dr Judy McGregor and subsequent research like Ravenswood’s 2014 Aged Care Workforce Survey, that the working conditions for aged care workers in New Zealand could be better. The fight for equal pay, which is really a fight for better pay – along with revelations over the uncertainty of hours, high workloads and a lack of support – all hint at a workforce that is not entirely happy.

Columnist Bernard Hickey recently shared his thoughts on this subject in the Herald on Sunday.

“But the strange and troubling truth is the people who want and need these jobs just can’t seem to get them, or don’t have the skills, or are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or won’t work unless the wage is higher.

“We now have more than 300,000 New Zealanders who want a job or more work, but employers are calling for even more relaxed migration rules to bring in people from overseas to do a mountain of construction, aged care, engineering and hospitality work.”

Hickey believes that simply opening up the doors for more migrants is not the answer in the long run.

Yet in recent years the government has encouraged employers in the aged care sector to recruit migrant workers. In 2014 the government supported the launch of resources and documents to help prepare workers and employers for employment in New Zealand’s aged care sector.

Many aged care employers have embraced the employment of migrant workers.

Elizabeth Knox Home and Hospital has taken an exemplary approach. The Auckland rest home employs trained and registered overseas nurses as care partners, pending their New Zealand registration. This allows the nurses the chance to gain experience of New Zealand while improving their job prospects upon completion of their registrations.

Andrea Sy, a registered nurse from the Philippines, was one who benefitted from this initiative. She was employed as a health care assistant at Elizabeth Knox while waiting for her New Zealand registration to be completed. Within a year she found employment as a registered nurse.

Overseas-trained aged care nurses have also been able to take advantage of initiatives that enable career progression and professional development within aged care. Canterbury District Health Board’s gerontology acceleration programme (GAP) is a good example. The programme involves postgraduate study and ‘job-swapping’ between workplaces, so the rest home nurses experience working in DHB services and the DHB nurses experience nursing in residential aged care. Selwyn, Bupa and others have supported their overseas nurses to put their hands up for the programme in the past.

Mixed messages?

However, a recent government policy tweak appears to slightly contradict its stance on recruiting foreign workers to the aged care sector.

Last month the Government announced that employers wanting to hire overseas workers would now be required to start the recruiting process at Work and Income New Zealand to ensure there was no New Zealander who could do the job before turning to the international market.

“I can’t help thinking that there are some who might have gone to that [international market] too readily and we have got to make sure that our young New Zealanders and all New Zealanders are selected to do the job before overseas workers are,” Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse told Radio New Zealand.

For aged care, the policy misses the point slightly. Certainly, we would like to see New Zealanders in these positions, but New Zealanders are increasingly turning to other jobs where the pay and conditions are better.

Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff summed it up well when he told Radio New Zealand that while the Government’s changes were positive, employers could not expect people to “pick up sticks and pick up a minimum wage job with no job security”.

The migrant experience

If Kiwis are turning away from aged care, what do migrant workers make of their working conditions?

Many, as highlighted above, are overqualified for their positions – typically registered nurses in their home countries settling for caregiver positions here. Often, they tend to see the role of health care assistant as a stepping stone.

A 2013 study led by University of Otago PhD candidate Esther Ngocha-Chaderopa showed that it isn’t a bed of roses for migrant workers here either. Her research, based on the management of aged care facilities in Dunedin, revealed that the wellbeing of migrant workers was affected by the stress of dealing with visa requirements, low pay, lack of training and support, and worryingly, discrimination and racism.

A quick scan of the global research shows that, sadly, these attitudes towards migrant workers persist in aged care around the world. However, other countries are also grappling with the same challenges of dealing with booming aged care populations and they too are looking beyond their own workforces. Australia, for example, predicts it will need 1.3 million aged care workers by 2050 – a massive jump from the 350,000 workers recorded in 2012. Seventy per cent of staff are first-generation and non-English-speaking.

This means that in many cases migrant workers have a choice of where they can seek work. New Zealand isn’t alone in its efforts to enhance pay and conditions for its aged care workforce. At last year’s Careerforce Workforce Development conference, Rod Cooke highlighted low pay and support as issues for Australia’s aged care workforce. So, effectively, New Zealand is competing with the likes of Australia for migrant aged care workers as both countries face a looming shortage.

It comes back to needing to raise the profile of our aged care workforce. Progress is certainly being made. The steps towards equal pay in the Health and Disability Kaiāwhina Workforce Action Plan are steps in the right direction. The goal should be creating a vocation that is attractive to all who seek to work in it – regardless of where they come from.

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