This Harmony Day – the day of celebrating cultural diversity – many people working in the aged care field have taken a moment to acknowledge the valuable contribution migrant workers have given the sector, often with great sacrifice.
Many having to leave their family and friends in their home country, migrant workers – particularly those working through the Pacific Australia Labour Migration (PALM) scheme – have helped fill the precious jobs and skills gaps in our aged care sector only to still be met with racism and prejudice.
The latest Aged Care Workforce Census Report showed 35% of direct care workers in residential aged care identified as culturally and/or linguistically diverse and most experience racism on a daily basis.
Nepali aged care worker, Pratik Sigdel, experienced this on his very first day on the job. Mr Sigdel was told by a resident to “go back to where you came from”.
“From the very first day… They used to tell us ‘you just go away, you just go back to the country where you’re from. I don’t like you, I don’t like your skin’,” he told ABC News.
“I just want the management to step in… and work for the betterment of the workers who are facing racism.
“If you can’t feel safe at work, how do you work properly in the workplace?”
Experts in the field have said racism from aged care residents towards workers is a prevalent issue that has yet to be addressed.
National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) Professor, Bianca Brijnath, said that racism towards aged care workers was hugely common and often is always a part of their professional work days.
“It really is very much specific to your skin colour, the way you speak, your accent and how you look.”
As part of her work, Professor Brijnath runs seminars for aged care workers on dealing with racism, touching on how neurological conditions such as dementia can make responding to prejudice even harder.
Government statistics show more than half of people living in residential aged care have dementia and Professor Brijnath said it can be nearly impossible to change a patient’s behaviours and foster respectful relationships if they live with the condition.
“With dementia, what can happen is people will lose their inhibitions. And they might behave in ways or see things that perhaps before they never did,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean staff shouldn’t get support if they are being discriminated against.
In 2022, Flinders University researcher, Temitope Olasunkanmi-Alimi, conducted a study examining racism in aged care through the experiences of 30 African migrant women working in the sector.
She found workers are subjected to micro-aggressions and institutional racism but stayed quiet out of fear they would lose their visa or their jobs.
“This racism manifests in ways that deny the ability of these workers to care for and care about clients, and that position them as not ‘real’ carers,” Doctor Olasunkanmi-Alimi wrote in her study.
“The data indicated that micro-insults are most commonly perpetrated by clients’ families and co-workers and are often expressed through assumptions that the African workers are incompetent, thus devaluing their skills.
“The study participants also described experiencing institutional racism in the design and delivery of training and induction programs, with regard to expectations about their English language proficiency, and in formal complaints/reporting processes.
“Interactions, processes and practices that deny and overlook the racism experienced by these workers has left them feeling ‘Othered’.”
Executive Director of the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, Doctor Adele Murdolo, backed that institutional and structural racism exists, confirming women from culturally diverse backgrounds working in the sector often struggled to advance in their careers, regardless of their overseas qualifications or accumulated experience.
Dr Murdolo described leadership in the aged care sector to ABC News as “a very male group, and very white”.
“As you come along and get down the hierarchy, you will see most of your personal care assistants and attendants are women from migrant and refugee backgrounds,” she said.
“Within the sector, I think we really undervalue migrant women’s potential for leadership.”
Yesterday, the Federal Government said it would not meet its commitment to staff aged care homes with registered nurses by July 1 as Australia struggles to fill vacancies in the sector, increasing Australia’s dependency on culturally diverse aged care workers.
In 2020, the Government announced priority visa processing for migrant aged care workers to grow the workforce, as well as relaxing visa requirements.
In order to tackle this institutional and structural racism, the Partners in Culturally Appropriate Care (PICAC) Alliance is conducting a survey to understand the experience of culturally diverse aged care workers and help create a new resource with information and strategies for providers to eliminate racism and discrimination and promote cultural safety in their facilities.
Professor Brijnath said the resources could not come soon enough and wants to see the focus shift to relationship-centred care from patient-centred care.
“In order to give care, someone’s got to receive it, someone’s got to give it and it is an interaction,” she said.
Professor Brijnath said workplaces need to support staff, speak to residents and their families, and even resort to asking very racist clients to find care elsewhere.
However, she said, the best approaches still needed to be found.
“We certainly need more research in this space and more evidence… of what works to overcome racism,” Professor Brijnath said.
To fill out the PICAC Alliance survey, visit their website. Submissions close on March 31.