‘Locals don’t like this job’: New Zealand’s aged care sector fears immigration reform | New Zealand
At the end of an eight-hour shift in a Wellington rest home, Joan Lagman feels exhilarated and exhausted. The 39-year-old caregiver from the Philippines has fed, clothed, toileted and showered the five elderly charges in her care. When one is having a bad day, she writes them inspirational notes.
They range in age from 87 to 100. All are immobile and some are bedridden. They tell her their fears, their problems, and the things they feel sad about. Sometimes they ask for their mum. Occasionally, Joan tells a white lie if one is expecting a relative to visit and that person doesn’t turn up.
Lagman is paid NZ$26 an hour for the mentally and physically gruelling work. She breaks down talking about the love she feels towards those in her care. “In the Philippines we care for our elderly and I grew up looking after my nana who lived with us,’’ she said.
“Here, they say it should be just a job which I do each day. But how many days a year do I look after them and how many hours? I become their friend. The hardest part is when one passes away. I’ve spent so much time with them so I miss them so much.’’
In New Zealand, 40,000 aged care beds are filled by elderly people who can’t be looked after by family and need 24/7 care. Instead, they’re cared for by 22,000 health care assistants, of whom about a quarter are like Lagman, mainly on temporary migrant visas.
Under New Zealand’s sweeping immigration proposals, the welcome mat may be pulled out for these semi-skilled workers as part of the government’s proposal to cut the numbers of “low skill” and low wage migrant workers in a post-Covid world and focus on employing and upskilling New Zealanders and attracting wealthy investors.
Lagman – who first arrived in New Zealand in 2015 with a bachelor of marketing degree from the Philippines – already deals with the stress of having to get her visa stamped annually. Work visas are issued for three years but temporary migrants or their employers must apply for these to be annually renewed. After three years, migrant workers have to stand down and go home, irrespective of whether a Kiwi can be found to fill the role: a policy the aged care sector hopes will be changed.
“It is hard when my residents want me to be here but I feel the country doesn’t,” Lagman said. “Unfortunately, locals don’t like this job. I will orient someone for one or two days and then they don’t like it and leave.’’
‘Not all Kiwis want to work in aged care’
Just as the hospitality and horticulture sectors are struggling without enough migrant workers to do the low and semi-skilled jobs that locals can’t or won’t do, rest homes and elderly hospitals have full beds and not enough caregivers and nurses to look after them.
Lagman’s boss, Albie Calope, says it can be stressful trying to find caregivers and nurses to care for the 116 aged care residents at the Malvina Major retirement village. He has 120 staff, of whom most are on temporary migrant visas, and several vacancies.
“I hope our staff can stay and get the visa extended again and we totally support their applications, but it’s tough. We need to make sure we have staff who are able to work and willing to work or we don’t know what we will do.’’
Unveiling the government’s immigration proposals last month, economic development minister, Stuart Nash, told business leaders that in the decade before Covid, temporary visas soared from 100,000 to 200,000. “Covid-19 has starkly highlighted our reliance on migrant labour – particularly temporary migrant labour,” he said. “As we focus on reopening New Zealand’s borders, we are determined not to return to the pre-Covid status quo.” Sectors which relied on migrant labour, like tourism and the primary industries, “will look different in future,” he said.
But in what the National party and other critics slammed as a contradiction to this philosophy, the immigration minister, Kris Faafoi, last week announced that 10,000 working holiday and seasonal work visas would be extended for six months, while essential skills visas like those held by health care workers due to expire would be bumped out till next July.
Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace says rest homes are a big employer of migrants from the Philippines, India and the Pacific, and they’re currently 300 to 500 nurses short. Of the 5,000 nurses in aged care, 55% are here on visas.
He welcomed the visa extension, but said he was concerned that the government had also announced that future migrant health care workers would have to be paid $27 an hour minimum to get a visa.
“That would rule out most of our caregivers and that will be a real problem for our sector as not many of them will earn over $27 an hour. We would love to pay more for them but we are only funded so much from the government for [aged care] beds,’’ he said.
“The whole narrative is now about highly skilled workers, but we rely on semi and mid-skilled workers to fill our labour gaps. Our [rest homes] are constantly embarking on drives to recruit Kiwis but we can’t get them to do these jobs. Unemployment is low, there aren’t the Kiwis to do these jobs and not all Kiwis want to work in aged care.’’
According to Sam Jones, health director at the E tū union the sector has historically been low paid, and that is why so many foreign migrants have filled labour gaps.
“But the demands in rest homes are so much harder these days. It used to be that elderly would turn up playing bowls and going on outings, but by the time they now qualify for aged care, they often are immobile with very high needs and so it’s … demanding work,” he said.
“We don’t want to be casting aside those who have come in from overseas and have been working hard to care for our elderly. We’d be concerned if they raise the bar so they say, “you have to go’’.’’