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February 16th 2012 print

Philippa Martyr

The real cost of Craig Thomson

What most people seem to overlook in this ongoing and fascinating scandal is exactly what union this is. Just whose money are these people mismanaging and quite possibly misusing?

Craig Thomson has been accused of misusing union funds to go on enormously-expensive-curry-fuelled sprees with (singularly unfortunate) prostitutes. A concurrent inquiry has just found that the Victorian branch of the same union has committed no less than 25 contraventions in its financial recordkeeping and management.

What most people seem to overlook in this ongoing and fascinating scandal is exactly what union this is. Just whose money are these people mismanaging and quite possibly misusing? 

It’s the Health Services Union. On their website they tell us that they have a ‘rich and proud history as Australia’s most representative health union.’ 

Who do they represent? According to their website, they represent ‘hospital staff and psychiatric care staff … ambulance, aged care, community health, disability sector, hospital scientists, mental health and drug and alcohol workers.’ 

The original unions which came to make up HSU in Victoria and NSW were home-grown groups which represented hospital and asylum workers in those States. This was at a time when mental hospital work was mostly done by male attendants, was incredibly dangerous and demanding, and where staff were often fined for perceived breaches of duty by unsympathetic hospital administrators.  

The unions grew, absorbed more professions, and amalgamated and modernised until they became the Hospital Employees Federation (HEF) and the Health and Research Employees Federation (HREF). In 1991 the two finally amalgamated to become the Health Services Union, and were joined by other smaller unions from different States.

The interesting thing about all this is that HSU is one of the unions involved in the recent Equal Remuneration Case heard by Fair Work Australia, which handed down its decision on 1 February. 

The social, community and disability services (SACS) industry throughout Australia has some of the lowest pay rates in the country, and some of the greatest labour inequities. Most of its workers are vulnerable women – sole parents; newly-arrived migrants with limited English; and women who have struggled to find full-time long-term employment, but are now being placed by Centrelink in training courses for a Certificate III in aged care and HACC (Health and Community Care) services. 

What do they do? For an hourly rate of anywhere between $15 and $23, a community support worker will: 

  • shower frail, disabled and often elderly housebound clients;
     
  • take them to the toilet and wipe their bottoms;
     
  • clean up faeces and urine where the person has had an ‘accident’ in their bed or on their floor;
     
  • launder their bedding and towels;
     
  • drive them to doctor’s and hospital appointments which can run over an hour late;
     
  • cook them a meal;
     
  • do their shopping, or help them to shop;
     
  • remind them to take their medication;
     
  • attend to their continence aids, including changing drenched and soiled nappies;
     
  • sit and talk to them and keep them company;
     
  • do basic housework for them, including emptying the fridge of decaying food and empyting bins overflowing with decaying rubbish; vacuuming, dusting and washing dishes. 

They do all of this, starting from very early in the morning to very late at night, and using their own transport. They do this for people who have no one else willing to do it for them, including their own family. In fact, they would do all of these things for Craig Thomson if he were an elderly person living alone in the community. 

Women who work in this area are also exposed to considerable risks. In some suburbs, they go into houses that are on the verge of collapse, with exposed wiring, crooked floors and infestations of cockroaches and mice. They deal with clients who are sometimes drunk and violent or obnoxious. They face sexual harassment, about which the newly-arrived migrants in particular are often unable to complain, for fear of losing their job. 

The Fair Work Australia decision on 1 February simply came out and said it: 

In this decision we have concluded that for employees in the SACS industry there is not equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal or comparable value by comparison with workers in state and local government employment.

They could have gone further and said:

Actually, in all our years of deliberation we have never seen anything like this job on earth, and anyone who can do it for more than five minutes should be paid a heck of a lot more than $19 an hour. 

If Craig Thomson is found guilty of taking thousands of dollars from a union which represents women like this – money which they could ill afford to spend on union fees, because HSU’s fees aren’t cheap – then every single one of them should have the right to go to the front of his house and stand there banging metal rubbish bin lids together until they feel that justice has been done. 

In fact, it would be nice to see these ladies following Mr Thomson around, from home to office to Parliament, just to make sure that he – and everyone else – gets the message.

See also: Craig Thomson’s $3000-a-head restaurant fundraiser here…