Aged care providers fear student visa changes will ‘devastate’ their workforce

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Aged-care providers are urging the federal government to delay slashing work rights for international students, warning it will worsen critical workforce shortages in the flatlining sector without an urgent replacement.

Student visa holders are heavily relied upon to fill low-paid care roles in the staff-strapped sector, but the unlimited hours they’ve been able to work under pandemic-era visa arrangements will be reduced to 24 hours a week under a raft of measures designed to rein in the exploitation of temporary workers.

Aged-care providers rely on international students to bolster staff numbers in the sector.Credit:

In a sign of how entrenched the use of foreign students had become, Tom Symondson, head of industry peak body the Aged and Community Care Providers Association, said the organisation wanted a six-month extension to existing conditions for those on student visas to gauge whether worker availability was improving.

“As it stands, the decision will likely have the impact of worsening the current shortages,” Symondson said.

According to aged care network Catholic Health Australia, at least 10 per cent of its workforce are student visa holders, 40 per cent of whom work more than 48 hours a fortnight.

CHA aged care director Jason Kara said the industry was juggling severe work shortages while trying to increase staffing to meet upcoming requirements for minutes of care per patient. “CHA has raised the issue of student visa work limits with the government and is working through the issue collaboratively,” Kara said.

Eldercare chief executive Jane Pickering said increasing the hours international students were allowed to work during the pandemic had been invaluable. “Reducing these hours will have a devastating impact on our services and increase pressure on an already stretched workforce,” Pickering said.

The government is revising its intake of international students to ensure they are coming to Australia to study useful skills and mitigate the use of student visas as a backdoor method to filling low-paid jobs.

“Instead of pretending that some students are here to study when they are actually here to work, we need to look to create proper, capped, safe, tripartite pathways for workers in key sectors, such as care,” Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said on Thursday.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said a proportion of those in Australia on student visas were actually in Australia to work rather than study.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

As Labor rethinks a commitment to 24/7 aged-care nurses in facilities, O’Neil acknowledged last week the workforce crisis couldn’t be fixed without migration, but didn’t put a timeline on a new plan to bring in low-paid workers in collaboration with businesses and unions.

“Even if we do everything around pay and conditions, we are still going to have a shortfall of workers in this sector,” O’Neil told the National Press Club on Thursday.

“Are we doing anything about it before the big fix, the answer is yes, and I will let [immigration minister] Andrew Giles speak more about that in the coming weeks.”

Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes said the workforce crisis in aged care was “clear and present”, citing the impending closure of three facilities in Sydney run by Wesley Mission.

“[The government is] going to have to do something quick. There’s plenty of organisations at the moment who are closing beds, if not the whole facility,” he said.

A spokesperson for Aged Care Minister Anika Wells said the government was funding a 15 per cent pay rise for aged-care workers from July 1, which would affect 250,000 workers in the sector, as well as boosting access to education and training programs to help relieve workforce pressures.

Suresh Manickam, head of hospitality lobby Restaurant and Catering, said the slashing of international student work rights would also damage his industry, as would plans to raise the minimum wage threshold for temporary skilled migrants from a frozen, 2013 rate of $53,900 a year to $70,000.

“The highest paid is a level six industry award $66,700 [for a chef de partie] so we’re no longer eligible under this threshold,” he said. “We have been left behind on the economic rubbish pile.”

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