Action is needed to help workers who care for elderly or disabled relatives or Australia will face a work/care collision from an ageing population, unions say.

Unless measures such as more flexible working hours and improved carers leave are introduced, workers who look after relatives who are elderly, chronically ill, disabled, or even school-aged children will face the same pressure to choose between their job and family as parents of pre-schoolers.

An ACTU submission to the Better Care for our Carers Parliamentary inquiry says that if carers are unable to participate in the paid workforce, Australia will lose a labour supply of skilled and experienced workers in the prime of their careers.

“Australia is facing a work/care collision and we are not well-equipped,” says ACTU president Sharan Burrow, who will address the Australian Institute of Family Studies national conference in Melbourne today on work and family issues. 

“We are finally making some progress towards helping parents of young pre-school aged children balance a fulfilling working life with their family responsibilities through improvements such as unpaid parental leave.

“The introduction of a national paid maternity leave scheme is the missing piece in this puzzle – and I welcome the commitment to such a scheme earlier this week from the Minister for Families, Jenny Macklin.

“But other workers who care for loved ones who are elderly, chronically ill or disabled are also feeling the crunch of the clash between work and family and need greater flexibility at work.”

Improvements recommended by the ACTU include the right to paid carer’s leave, flexible working hours, and a capacity for workers to take temporary leave to care for a terminally ill relative.

“The ACTU has received horrific reports from carers who are constantly exhausted, feel isolated and marginalised, and suffer from depression or poor health themselves,” Ms Burrow says.

“Many are under extreme financial pressure. Still others, have been forced to retire prematurely.

“Australia is lagging behind much of the developed world in recognising the needs of carers, and this is a major challenge facing our nation.

“The best support we can give them is to assist carers to combine paid work and their caring responsibilities.”