We must speak up for Australia’s 2.7 million unpaid carers

13 August 2015

by Emily MillaneĀ 

The Australian Human Rights Commission is going round the country at the moment, conducting community consultations as part of its Willing to Work Inquiry. The inquiry is investigating the barriers which people face in finding and retaining work on account of their disability or their age.

At one of the consultations I attended, we talked about the structural issues with the labour market in Australia today; no matter how much people might be “willing to work”, they need a job they can do. People also need decent work.

There was unanimous agreement on another matter: if you’re out of the workforce for long enough, your ability to re-enter it diminishes. Nowhere is this more evident than for Australia’s 2.7 million unpaid carers, nearly 20 per cent of whom are aged over 65 and the majority of whom are women.

Unpaid caring is an issue of giant proportions and many dimensions. Our country depends on carers and it’s going to do so more as Australia ages.

The estimated annual replacement value of unpaid care provided in 2012 was over $40.9 billion. That’s roughly the annual cost of the age pension. Among people receiving publicly funded aged care, 32.4 per cent are also receiving care from a family member or friend. As Carers Australia notes, the chances are that you personally are a carer, need a carer or know a carer.

Unpaid caring responsibilities mean women have less paid work and often find themselves in part-time and casual jobs. Analysis by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling shows that only one fifth of women who are primary carers are in full-time employment, compared with nearly two fifths of other women aged between 30 and 64 years.

What skills are you meant to put on your CV if you’re a primary carer and haven’t sat in an office for years? Perhaps we need to think about work experience more broadly. Patience, resilience and problem-solving are skills you acquire as a carer and they don’t go astray in the workplace either.

Not only do carers experience patchy employment, they leave the workforce earlier. Productivity Commission data shows that around 28 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women aged 60-64 who retire did so because of caring responsibilities or poor health.

One lady told me the story of how she wanted to go down to three days of work per week in order to care for her husband. Her employer said such an arrangement wouldn’t be possible. Weeks later, a new parent in the same office returned to work on a three day-per-week basis. Flexibility in our workplaces, if it’s to have any meaning, must not exclude.

If your working life has been patchy, and you leave the workforce relatively early, guess what else you get? A superannuation balance which you’ll need a magnifying glass to look at. This is because superannuation only accumulates when you are employed, or when you are on parental leave. As a result, the way unpaid care is treated by superannuation is another example of the way superannuation discriminates.

Just because carers are not employed doesn’t mean they’re not working. One way the superannuation system could recognise this is for the government to pay superannuation into the accounts of carers for the periods of time they’re out of the workforce. These ‘carers credits’ could be funded from a number of different pools of money, including by winding back superannuation tax concessions. As the AHRC notes, the benefit of such a policy is, “greater gender equality in older age and greater adequacy of women’s retirement incomes through access to increased superannuation entitlements, leading to improvement in financial wellbeing in older age.”

I’ve witnessed from close quarters the way a person can become a carer overnight. That moment the hospital calls to say your husband is “very unwell”, a description at once banal and horrifying.

When he regains consciousness in a neurology ward some weeks later with staples in his head, asking where the car is so he can drive to a meeting, there’s the instant realisation that he is not the same. Will he ever be? Much slower, and harder to accept, is that your role in the world has changed, forever.

Too bad if you’re still working and you risk losing your job by asking for fewer hours in order to provide care. Too bad if you have health issues of your own. Too bad if you had other plans.

There are many ways of becoming a carer, and many different ways of being one. But the impact of caring on an individual who provides that care, and their ability to participate in society, is something all carers share. It is another dimension of the superannuation reform conversation that Australia is having, and it should be a first order issue.