Privatisation hits home - Women bear the burden of under-funded services

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“Community care.” It has such a nice ring to it: society’s thrown-away people being brought back into community life, no longer shut away in large, impersonal and uncaring institutions.

But do we believe for one minute that the State has emptied its publicly-funded institutions because it cares? Of course not! Where do the former inhabitants end up? In private institutions and flop houses. On the street. Or back in a family. For the State, these are cheap alternatives. For the entrepreneurs, it’s profitable. For the under-funded support services, it’s overwhelming and stressful. For the “de-institutionalised,” it’s barbaric. For the families, it’s hell. For women – the unpaid and low-paid carers – it’s another very heavy burden.

Society on the cheap. Community care is women like me, who work in community-based welfare organisations. I’m employed by a state-funded support service for people with psychiatric disabilities. My co-workers are all women. Our workplace is a former church built in the ‘60s – cold and drafty in Melbourne’s winters and sweltering in the summers. The industry relies more and more on short-term contract, part-time and casual workers. Where I work, we have to be well versed in our rights because of management’s constant cost-cutting schemes. As a part-timer, I’m paid $175 for two days a week – hardly enough to pay the bills. We’re frequently required to cover for staff away on holiday, sick or other leave. Even though this brings in a few more dollars, the additional workload doesn’t make it worthwhile. Then there’s the distress of having to deal with a “client” who snaps under the strain, sometimes becoming abusive and violent. That’s the sharp end of care.

Community care is also women like me struggling to support a teenage son who deals with the pain in his life by injuring himself with razor cuts and cigarette burns. It’s the endless, desperate search for the resources to support him. It means doing this alone – not only because of the social stigma of having a child with a “mental illness,” but because of a misogynist society that says it’s my fault.

Hard labour: privatised and “voluntary.” Masquerading as concern for society’s most alienated, community care is really a cold-hearted way of discarding the workers industry won’t use. In a profit-driven economy, it’s a particularly sleazy way of discrimination against working class women. If society’s “difficult” children, elder and physically and mentally disabled are to get any care, another institution must kick in: the family. And it is predominantly the wives, mothers, daughters and daughters-in-law who look after them.

The results of a VicHealth-funded five-year study published last year gave a glimpse of the high human cost. This research by health professionals exposed the rock-bottom conditions of unpaid carers in the home. It revealed that most are women, with large numbers on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. One in 20 households includes a carer. One in four carers finds it hard to meet the cost of daily living, yet relatively few receive government benefits. Almost half – those of workforce age, but not in paid work – had given up jobs or were unable to work because of their carer responsibilities. They reported poorer health, more anxiety and depression, more overwork and social isolation than those with the usual family responsibilities.

When it comes to community care programs, there’s a contradiction between the State’s enthusiasm for them and the promotion of anti-discrimination as official government policy. Women are the major providers of the uncosted labour power of community care schemes – just as they are for many other services. Government-mandated literacy programs for primary school children could not possibly be delivered without the volunteer classroom helpers, mostly women. Many emergency services, especially in rural areas – as well as the charitable organisations and citizens aid services that provide invaluable assistance to the community – could not operate without the labour of volunteers, mostly women. Yet this is rarely even mentioned.

Women’s critical role in community care is systemically undervalued and ignored. At the bottom of this is sexism, the cornerstone of the capitalist system. The work we do – whether as mothers, wives and daughters in the home or as volunteers for Meals on Wheels – is not recognised. Sex discrimination law doesn’t cover us. And, until recently, nor has welfare policy, whose attention has been on the cared-for rather than the care-givers.

Propping up the family. Community care is buckling under the strain. Grossly under-resourced workplaces and families cannot go on carrying this kind of weight. In an effort to fend off the crisis, government has started channelling money into support programs for carers. Under the four-year Victorian Carers’ Initiative, set up in 1996, the state government is throwing “bucket loads” into mental health, disability services and aged care organisations, which assist those taking care of family members. Declaring carers to be the lynchpins that have helped many people retain their independence and dignity, government representatives regularly announce that, for too long, the hard work and dedication of community carers in providing support for many thousands of elderly, disabled and chronically or mentally ill people in their homes has not been properly recognised.” Their bucket loads are only drips in an ocean of need.

Underlying these official pronouncements is “family values” – put another way, the demands of industry. Under the new order of “economic rationalism” and “mutual obligation,” the system passes out only crumbs to those of us who keep society in working order – as we watch our wealth being delivered to the banquet table of corporate capital.

Lynchpins Unite! When the going gets tough, the tough get … angry! And anger can spread like wildfire. In Melbourne’s multicultural working class northern suburbs, for example, corporatisation of community health services, like Dianella Community Health Inc, has meant dramatic changes to service provision and employees’ working conditions. Fees were introduced for visits, and staff were told they’d have to pay for the use of the car park. The industrial and social impact of these changes propelled workers into action. Union meetings became a regular occurrence, and workers challenged the erosion of their working conditions. It’s had a snowball effect. In my own workplace, a satellite of Dianella, unionising our workforce has become a priority in the face of worsening conditions and rotten pay. From minimal union membership, when I first started, the majority of workers now belong to their unions. For years, our management had headed off a growing pressure from workers for training and professional development. But now, my co-workers and I are asserting our rights.

Unionising the workforce and organising with our household counterparts can bring this very cruel system unstuck. Women hold the key.

Together, we should demand:

  • Award wages for the work we do: caring is society’s task and should be treated as such – an industrial issue
  • Free, well-staffed, multilingual medical and home care to provide quality support – no dehumanising services for profits
  • A guaranteed income for all – elders, young, homeless, disabled – at a liveable union wage level
  • Full civil rights and the guarantee of a useful and productive life, regardless of age or disability
  • Government-funded, quality housing, healthcare and social supports for everyone
  • Ultimately, “community care” will no longer be code for treating certain people like waste and super-exploiting others to do the cleaning up. It’ll describe a society of people who are equally recognised and respected, and collectively responsible for everyone. Now that has a nice ring!
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