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The fight for climate justice is also the fight for improving the low-carbon care jobs we already have.

Climate change means we need to transition our economy to be low-carbon as soon as possible, with secure and dignified jobs for all. The biggest opportunity is in care work. But to make these the jobs of the future, environmentalists and unionists must come together to fight for better wages, respect and conditions.

Minimising climate change needs to become Australia’s priority. This looks like transitioning our wider energy grid away from fossil fuels, modernising our waste and recycling, and investing in low-carbon jobs. 

For a job to be low-carbon, it must be work that is non-extractive and vital for having a healthy and functioning society. Care work ticks both of those boxes.

Care work is also growing – significantly. Between 2010 and 2020:

  • The number of people using home care in Australia tripled. 
  • Permanent aged care residents increased by 13%.
  • The number of people using transition care or respite residential aged care increased by over 50%. 

Early childhood education and care is also growing, with 3 in 5 children aged 0-4 now reported as attending some form of childcare.

Yet despite this growth – and the importance of the industries – care jobs continue to be some of the most underpaid and undervalued jobs in Australia. Made worse still by the impact of privatisation, which has resulted in private corporations prioritising profit over care.

The consequence of this is made clear from incident reports by aged care workers on Aged Care Watch.

“There is never enough time to provide quality care, there are times when we can provide adequate care but a majority of the time we are just providing bare essential inadequate care.”

Why do we undervalue care work?

Our society has critically undervalued care work for many reasons. The fact that it is a female-dominated industry means it was already likely to struggle with lower pay, however, care work suffers what some call the care penalty. The cultural association of care work with mothering means that there is the expectation that this kind of work should be provided out of love, not for money so care workers are paid too little even when you factor in gender and level of training.

Women, especially working-class women, are taught that we should undervalue ourselves, that the work that we do is unimportant. Yet really, it’s the opposite, this is some of the most important work that is done in our society, the kind of work that brings joy and connection, supports those who need it the most and ends up indirectly benefiting us all.

Care workers are on the front lines of climate change

Care worker jobs need to be improved because care workers will be on the frontlines when it comes to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather. When extreme weather events happen, physical infrastructure is more likely to break down and the social infrastructure will be the only thing left. This will mean that care workers will often be first responders, with the skills and understanding of what people need and where they are located. They will be the ones who are looking after the most vulnerable people to climate change, people with disabilities and the elderly who are the most at risk from heatwaves and have more complex medical needs such as medication and conditions that require life-supporting equipment.

What the future could look like for care workers

With climate change, it is easy to predict doom and gloom, but I find it useful to raise my expectations of what is possible by imagining the future that is just as possible if we fight for it.

Let’s imagine it’s 2035 and the transition away from fossil fuels has been successful, the public now owns the infrastructure that provides cheap renewable energy and our government has revitalised our local economies by creating and funding public jobs that are good for people. 

Flora is in one of these jobs as an aged care worker. She works in a community-owned facility because we recognised after the COVID and the crisis in aged care that profiting off the care of people is unethical and costs workers, patients and their loved ones dearly in money and wellbeing. She is passionate and loves her career, the people she cares for have so much wisdom to share.

She works regular hours at the one home which is only a 10-minute electric bus ride away, she has had enough paid training and earns a good salary, reflecting the value this work provides to society. As she is not too stressed or overworked, she has more energy, making it easier to meet the needs of the residents and support the people she works with.

She has time to relax and enjoy life, she spends time learning how to dance and going to the movies. Her friends also have secure work. They are musicians, home care workers, builders, electricians, ecosystem support workers, bakers, and disability support workers. They are all workers in the zero-carbon economy, one that works for people and understands that prosperity should be shared. 

That’s my vision for a low-carbon economy, and it’s one I will fight for as a proud union and climate activist. 

How you can make a change

Fired up? Ready to take a stand for our care workers? Here’s what you can do:


Further reading: 

Written by Josie

Josie is a hospitality member of the United Workers Union and a passionate advocate for climate justice.