Life for Australian women has become more difficult under the Howard Government says ACTU President Jennie George.
Women have been disproportionately affected by the Howard Government’s approach to:-
- our industrial relations system;
- jobs policies;
- the health system and the aged care sector;
- tertiary education funding;
- our childcare system.
Women have also shown themselves to be wary of two key issues now being pursued by the Howard Government:-
- a GST;
- the further full privatisation of Telstra.
Let me go to some of these issues in more detail.
Women’s right to work
Under the Howard Government the clock is being turned back for working women as well as women in the home.
Women are being forced out of the workforce for the first time in decades. They are being forced out because:-
- the cost of childcare has become prohibitive;
- responsibility for family members has been increasingly transferred from the social safety net to families themselves, be they teenage children unable to find work, or elderly parents in need of nursing care;
The bulk of the burden of these transferred responsibilities falls on women as carers within their families, thus increasing the burden placed on women in the have.
What Sort Of Work
Women want and need jobs. Young women expect this as a right as so they should.
At the same time they want to combine these jobs with having families. This means that at different stages in their lives they will probably take a break from the workforce to have children.
Most women these days want some time at home full-time and then a period of part-time employment before resuming full-time jobs after having families.
Increasingly young fathers are wanting more involvement in sharing family responsibilities. The point is Mr. Howard’s “white picket fence” family is a thing of the past. Our laws and institutions have to deal with the reality of the 1990’s family.
In the deregulated working environment that has been fostered and promoted by the Howard Government women want:-
- equal access to education, training and jobs;
- secure employment;
- regular and predictable hours of work;
- reasonable workloads;
- proper wages commensurate with their skills, experience and responsibilities;
- a proper balancing of work and family responsibilities.
All of these objectives are harder to achieve under the Howard Government’s Workplace Relations Act with its promotion of individual contracts and only a limited role for the Industrial Relations Commission.
The Effect On Women Of The Government’s Industrial Relations Policy
Safety Net Increases
The Government is opposed to the IRC giving across the board wage increases to the award safety net. These are most important for women who are reliant upon the award system and the Commission to deliver wage increases.
In the last Living Wage Case, the Government argued for an $8 increase. Of course they wouldn’t have been arguing for any increase at all had the ACTU not made the claim.
The Commission rejected this approach and awarded increases ranging from $14 for those on award rates under $550 per week to $10 for those on award rates of more than $700 per week.
These increases are critical for women who have been unable to negotiate enterprise bargaining wage increases.
Paid Rates Awards
The Government is currently arguing before the Commission that paid rates awards should be converted to minimum rates awards. If they succeed, teachers, nurses and community services workers which are predominantly female occupations as well as public servants would not receive safety net increases. They would also have a lower rate applying as the benchmark for the “no disadvantage” test when negotiating certified agreements. The Commission has not yet made a decision in that case.
Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs)
Women have also been disproportionately disadvantaged by the new system of individual contracts introduced by the Howard Government. These contracts, or AWAs, allow employers to negotiate on a one-to-one basis with employees.
Mostly this means employers have a custom made contract which they offer to all employees, i.e., there is no real “negotiation.” Signing one of these agreements can legally be a condition for getting a job.
Although AWAs are required to be tested against the relevant award to ensure they pass the “no disadvantage test”, this is a secret process conducted by the Government-appointed Employment Advocate.
AWA’s have most commonly been used to get rid of penalty rates and extend hours of work, leaving workers worse off.
Anecdotal material coming to the ACTU tells of workers being too fearful for their jobs if they resist AWA’s which they know disadvantage them. Workers are surprised when told their union and the Industrial Relations Commission have little power to prevent such contracts being implemented if the majority of workers succumb to pressure and accept the conditions offered.
The Howard Government has set back women’s pursuit of equal pay.
First, it showed its hostility to having effective equal pay mechanisms when it initially proposed to remove from its Workplace Relations Act the provisions which give the Commission power to make orders for equal remuneration for work of equal value in the over-award.
This is very important, as women earn on average only 48.2 per cent of male over-award earnings. The provisions were only kept in the legislation because of a campaign by unions and women’s groups and the insistence of the Australian Democrats.
More importantly, the Howard Government’s assault on awards and the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission, as well as the introduction of contracts, represent the biggest threat to women’s slow but steady advance towards equal pay.
Since the Workplace Relations Act took effect less than two years ago, the gap between male and female full-time ordinary time earnings has increased by 0.3 per cent.
Whilst this might appear to be a small drop, it is significant in that it is the first time we have had an increase in this gap for many years and is indicative of a significant trend down for women’s wages.
Women have also been adversely affected by the Government’s approach to part-time work.
Australia has one of the highest rates of part-time work in the OECD, with around a third of all female workers employed on a part-time basis.
Many women choose to work part-time. However, the fact that the proportion of part-time workers wanting to work a greater number of hours increased from 16.9 per cent in 1986 to 28.3 per cent in 1995 is a matter of concern.
The Workplace Relations Act prevents the Commission from including provisions which set minimum or maximum hours for part-timers in awards. Provisions requiring that part-time workers not exceed a stated proportion of the total workforce are also illegal.
As a result employers are able to employ part-time employees for as little as three or four hours per week, to change their hours of work with minimal notice and to provide only part-time work opportunities, whether or not workers want or need full-time employment. These changes will impact most severely in industries, such as retail, hospitality, finance and clerical, where women’s employment is concentrated.
Many women value flexible arrangements which allow them to better manage work and family responsibilities, particularly involving the care of children. However, giving employers an even greater ability to determine when and how employees will work, makes life harder, not easier, for these workers.
Other changes to awards have also affected women workers to their detriment.
Section 89A(2) of the Act contains a list of allowable award matters; all award provisions, which fall outside this list, must be removed by the Commission, and ceased to be of any legal effect from 1 July 1998.
As a result, the following provisions have been removed from awards:
- right of entry for union officials;
- the obligation for employers to consult about changes to work, and redundancies;
- requirements for the employer to provide tools and clothing and amenities such as lunch rooms and boiling water (although some of these can be replaced with an allowance);
- sexual harassment provisions.
Employers and the Government have argued that a number of other common award provisions should also be removed, although the Commission has either rejected these arguments or not yet made a decision. Provisions under threat include:
- accident make-up pay;
- restrictions on working excessive overtime;
- rostered days off;
- study leave;
- trade union training leave;
- paid time off to donate blood.
Employers and the Government have made it clear that they will continue this assault on awards by reducing still further the number of ‘allowable’ matters if the Government is re-elected.
Women workers, with little bargaining power and who are therefore reliant upon awards are most disadvantaged by the removal of these sorts of provisions. Whilst some might seem relatively minor they are important in terms of the quality of working life. Over a decade ago, the report But I Wouldn’t want My Wife To Work Here, revealed the lack of amenities provided for workers in the clothing industry in Melbourne. It seems we are moving back to those conditions.
Awards are also being undermined by the so-called ‘award simplification’ process.
The Act requires the Commission to review awards to make sure that they do not hinder or restrict productivity. As a result of the Democrats’ insistence, the Commission is also required to consider fairness to employees, a concept which was absent from the original draft of the legislation.
Employers, supported by the Government, have argued strongly for the removal of basic entitlements, like penalty rates, superannuation and controls over working hours.
In most cases the Commission has acted to protect these basic entitlements, but the Government has made it clear that it is not happy with some of these decisions, and will change the legislation if re-elected, to further reduce award conditions.
These changes will impact most strongly on women, who are less likely than men to be covered by enterprise agreements, and whose agreements are more likely to contain changes to working hours and penalty rates. Where women are negotiating agreements, award changes of this kind will reduce the safety net used for comparing the agreement with the award to apply the no disadvantage test.
The Government has already introduced legislation to remove superannuation from the list of award allowable matters, arguing that this is necessary to implement its proposed scheme of choice of superannuation fund.
Removal of award superannuation provisions gives employers most control over which fund workers’ superannuation contributions will go to.
It also means workers, such as those in the retail and hospitality industries, who have an award superannuation entitlement even though they earn less than the $450 per month threshold for the Superannuation Guarantee Charge, will lose this entitlement, being anywhere from $300 to $1500 per year of superannuation. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be earning less than $450 per month.
The Government has also announced that it will legislate to allow employees earning between $450 and $900 per month to “opt out” of superannuation, in favour of a cash equivalent (currently seven per cent) added to their wages. Again, women are twice as likely as men to fall into this category.
This proposal will deny women full superannuation benefits, while not guaranteeing that they will, in fact, receive the full cash equivalent, or even any compensation at all. Nothing has been said by the Government about enforcement, and it will be easy for employers to avoid payment.
What Women Need
In these circumstances, women need a return to a fair industrial relations system. This would see the:
- return of comprehensive awards;
- restoration of the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission to arbitrate about all issues that affect women at work;
- proper mechanisms for promoting equal pay;
- encouragement of collective agreements rather than individual contracts.
I am pleased to see that Labor has promised to:
- restore powers to the Commission to make awards and solve disputes;
- restore real award protections;
- abolish Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA’s);
- prevent individual contracts being a pre-condition of employment;
- give priority to awards and collective bargaining over individual contract;
- introduce laws to ensure workers employed by insolvent companies have all lawful entitlements protected.
All of these changes will be beneficial to women workers.
In addition, the ACTU will be talking to a Labor Government about how we can make the equal pay provisions more effective.
I believe a Labor Government is critical for women in the workforce.
The Effect On Women Of The Government’s Tax Policy
Women are also likely to be adversely affected by the Government’s recently announced tax package. And they know it!
It is no surprise that more women than men are opposed to a GST. It is mostly women who do the household shopping. They can see clearly how devastating such a tax would be on their family budgets.
Everything will be subject to the tax. Every item in the supermarket, at the greengrocer, at the fast food outlet, at the chemist. Children’s clothes, including school uniforms, and books and canteen lunches will be taxed. All entertainment from a day at the footy with the family to a night out at the pictures will be taxed.
Once a GST is in place, it is there forever and likely to be increased over time.
In addition, the Government’s tax cuts discriminate against working women. As Michelle Grattan has written the package “gives proportionately much greater tax breaks to single income couples with young children than to similar families on dual incomes.” [Financial Review 22/23 August 1998].
Comparing two families on $50,000 a year with three children (one under five) – the single income family would be $52.65 a week better off compared to the dual income family which would only be $20.07 better off.
The dual income family would also have additional childcare expenses that the single income family would not have incurred and this would quickly eradicate that $20.00 extra a week promised to that family.
The Howard plan also discriminates between children. Higher benefits accrue to families with children under five – despite the fact that expenses rise as children get older.
Howard’s tax package also encourages women as secondary earners to take lower paying jobs as they are penalised when they earn more. Dr. Deborah Mitchell of the ANU is correct when she says the Howard package tells women that “part-time work or no work is a more rewarded option.” (Financial Review, 22-23 August 1998).
This is despite the fact that even the Minister for the Status of Women, Judi Moylan, recognises that a lot of women prefer to work. For that reason many women’s organisations have expressed concern that the Howard package adds to disincentives for women to move from the unpaid sector to paid employment.
This is in an environment where women already face great difficulty in returning to the workforce once their children are at school.
Anecdotal evidence is that women feel frustrated that their years out of the workforce count against them in job interviews – when everyone know the skills involved in managing young children on a full-time basis is the equivalent to managing any medium sized company!
Yet, women do want to work and they do so for more than just money, be they working in low paying, lower status jobs or high paid, higher status jobs.
I take issue with conservative commentator, Robert Manne, writing in the Melbourne Age who queried whether women were motivated to work in low paid childcare and process worker jobs.
He has been answered by Pamela Bone, a women features writer in the same paper, who wrote subsequently of her “escape” from family chores to the assembly line on night shift at a cannery.
As for childcare workers, let me say the women who work in childcare are the most dedicated, skilled and enthusiastic workers I have met. The fact that society does not value their skills properly is another issue entirely, but in my experience their commitment to their precious work is second to none.
The real issue here is choice – and women must be given a fair and equitable choice when deciding how to arrange their family affairs.
Women are further disadvantaged as Dr. Patricia Apps of Sydney University has noted. Under the Howard package “Tax on women is going up relatively. Because women are typically on lower incomes, they don’t get so much of a tax cut.” (Financial Review, 22-23 August 1998). She estimates that the plan increases “the share of the tax burden on secondary earners from 24 to 32 per cent.” (Financial Review, 26 August 1998).
Finally, the Howard package is based on a number of shaky assumptions. First, the Government estimates a 1.9% increase in CPI. The ACTU estimates this will be more likely 4% or more. Secondly, the Government assumes GST would only add 30 cents a week to the cost of raising a child. This is clearly wide of the mark when you consider the extra cost of a GST on food, nappies, clothing, shoes, sporting classes, video rental, haircuts, medicines, books, uniforms, etc.
On the other hand, Labor’s tax credit is simple. It will be delivered on family income regardless of whether it’s earned by one or both partners. It does not discriminate on the basis of children age below 15. Labor’s package will particularly encourage women in low-come families back into the workforce. It does not include a GST.
Women And The Services That Make Our Community
But this election is about more than tax.
Women have been particularly badly affected by the Howard Government’s slashing of government services.
- health and aged care;
The Howard Government has thrown millions of dollars into incentives to get people into private health insurance instead of putting that money directly into the public health system. At the same time it has taken $800 million from public hospitals.
People have voted with their feet in rejecting those incentives and I am sure that women have played a large part in doing so.
What do you want if you have a sick child? You want access to the best children’s hospital as quickly as possible. Children go from happy little bundles to alarmingly lethargic bodies in a very short time when they are sick. In short, you want to get to the public hospital system where our best doctors train and where we have traditionally had the best facilities.
Women want their public hospitals maintained at the high quality that we have, until recently, expected.
That’s why the Australian community loves Medicare – it ensures quality public hospitals for everyone.
Over recent times we have seen a shocking decline in the quality of our hospitals – patients on trolleys, patients discharged early, etc.
Nurses shine out as beacons for patients subject to these conditions and I congratulate nurses and the ANF for their commitment to quality of care in adverse circumstances. This commitment is such that we have nurses taking industrial action to ensure we have enough people to care for us in hospital.
Women are bearing the brunt of these changes – visiting and comforting patients while in hospital and then looking after them when they come too early.
Australian women should be pleased with Labor’s commitment to public hospitals to the tune of $500 million per year for the next three years. Such an injection of funds is unprecedented. It is welcome. And I profoundly hope it is implemented.
Secondly, in respect to the health, we have a crisis in our aged care sector. We have seen $500 million taken out of this sector alone; nursing home bonds put on, taken off and essentially put on again by the Howard Government. At the same time changes in regulations have reduced the numbers of qualified nurses in nursing homes.
The elderly in Australia are being asked to pay $4,380 a year to be cared for in a nursing home. Pensioners have to pay an extra $84.00 a week and self-funded retirees $347.00 per week. All of this has caused utmost distress to the frail elderly – those who are most vulnerable in our community.
So it is pleasing to see Labor promising to abolish the additional nursing home fees imposed by the Government – both the yearly and weekly fees.
The ALP has also promised to put back the $500 million that has been taken from the sector plus an extra $20 million to the aged care budget. It will dedicate $360 million of that money to the urgent upgrading of nursing homes in need of repair which is a clearly identified problem.
Labor has also committed to ensuring nursing homes are required to employ suitably qualified staff.
Of course, the greatest benefit Labor is promising older Australians is to have no GST.
Changes to education have also had a disastrous impact on women.
The Howard Government has:
- cut 1.8 billion dollars from the tertiary education sector (universities and TAFE);
- allowed universities to charge up-front fees for the first time since 1973, i.e. the Whitlam Government;
- increased HECS fees by 35% to 125% – these fees are now between $3,400 and $5,500 per year;
- seen the number of applications to go to university drop by 4% a year for each of the past two years, the decline has mostly affected mature age students, women and part-timers;
- increased the age of dependence before students get Austudy unaffected by their parents income to 25 years;
- introduced the Common Youth Allowance, which treats youth from 16 to 20 as dependent on their parents, 16 and 17 year olds are no longer eligible for the dole, 18, 19 and 20 year olds are means tested against their parent’s income.
Women are now required to provide for their teenage children for much longer than previously. Here is an added incentive for women to get a job in order to provide a reasonable level of support for their student children – despite the disincentive in the tax package.
Again, as with the elderly, the biggest burden facing these students – and their parents – will be the added cost of a GST tax on books, food, and clothes. and everything else they buy.
The Howard Government has also ripped the heart out of Australia’s childcare system. It has done this by cutting funds to childcare by a staggering $1.3 billion. This has resulted in increased childcare fees of between $15 and $30 per week.
The Government has abolished the operational subsidy previously paid to community childcare centres. The effect will be to decimate our hitherto world model community childcare system.
It has reduced childcare assistance to families using childcare services. For the first time in decades childcare centres are closing down because childcare is unaffordable. This means either that women are being forced out of the workforce or that children are being left in unregulated care.
A national survey of community owned childcare centres in December 1997 found that of 464 centres that responded to the questionnaire:-
- 82% of centres reported increased fees;
- 82% reported children withdrawn from care;
- 80% reported families decreasing booked hours;
- 68% reported parents altering work patterns;
- 54% found parents giving up work to care for children due to the cost of care, (mainly women); 46% of centres had experienced staff cuts;
- 33% reduced service provision;
- over one quarter of centres had changed the ratio of staff to children;
- over 20% of centres had discussed the possibility of closure, with 13% discussing this possibility within 6 months;
- loss of terms and conditions of employment for staff was reported by 25% of centres.
These are the inevitable consequences of massive reductions in government support for childcare. The assault on childcare has the flow-on effect of forcing women out of the workforce by limiting their options to choose to work.
We must not, in this election, allow the Government to push these social issues off the agenda. These issues are critical to all Australians and especially women.
Women And Telstra
Women are also opposed to the sale of Telstra. Polling shows that many more women than men in the community are opposed to the sale – although amongst both men and women a majority in the community are opposed. Women recognise Telstra’s importance as a means of communicating. They recognise it has more than monetary value to the Australian community.
I think they see Telstra as being a sort of glue, holding families and communities together. Travelling as often as I do, that is a sentiment that I share as I keep in contact with my mother and friends by telephone.
Or course, it is about more than providing social and family communication. Increasingly, it is about education and training.
Women are concerned that they and their children have access to communication and information technology, in this age of the information super higher. This has the capacity to greatly advantage all of us as citizens of a global world without frontiers. It does, however, have the potential to divide us as strongly as class has in the past – into the information rich versus the information poor. Access to communication will be as important as access to education and health care in the new millennium.
Our telecommunications system is about more than money. It is a service and women rightly see it as a service that government should guarantee. The only way it can guarantee this service is by retaining it in Government hands.
The Government partly recognises this. It has retained the “ministerial directive” provision which allows the Government of the day to direct Telstra to take particular action as required, i.e., not to introduce fees for directory assistance or timed local calls. However, such a directive is impossible with a fully privatised Telstra.
The Government has therefore sought to allay community fears about unfettered market interests prevailing over the common good by retaining the Community Service obligation – now called a Guarantee. This requires Telstra to financially compensate customers who don’t get their service installed or repaired within a reasonable time. The trouble is, it might be easier and cheaper sometimes to pay compensation than to deliver the service. In any event, a number of services such as Payphones and Directory Assistance are not covered by the Guarantee.
Attempts to maintain any sort of community service obligation, regarding untimed local calls, public telephone access, etc., once Telstra is fully privatised will be difficult. This is because the return to shareholders then becomes the single, overriding priority of the Board.
A further issue for a privatised Telstra relates to looking after its business customers first. 80% of Telstra’s profits come from 20% of its customers. Those customers will be serviced first.
Already, after partial privatisation the Australian Communications Authority has recorded a decline in service to residential customers.
Maintaining Telstra in majority public ownership has an economic benefit too – as we retain the income stream from its profits to re-invest in our community. Telstra has recorded a record $3 billion profit. It is expected to pay a $1.5 billion dividend to the Government in 1999 – 2000. Once sold, we will never get that income stream back.
Labor has announced its Telstra Reward Fund which will ensure that 35% of that dividend will be placed in a fund to be used for science and technology, regional infrastructure and job creation. In other words – investing in our future.
This is a welcome initiative and should be supported by all Australians.
Women Expect And Need A Supportive Government Framework
The dismantling of many of the great policy and institutional breakthroughs Australian women achieved under previous Labor Governments – the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating Governments – has been one of the unnoticed tragedies of the Howard Government.
We have seen women’s policy advice mechanisms and women’s services which were initially established and funded under Whitlam, all of which were continued and expanded by subsequent governments, systematically wound back under Howard.
The Howard Government has downgraded or dismantled many of the regulatory and administrative mechanisms established to support working women. For example during past two years we have seen the:
- attempted abolition of Sex Discrimination Commissioner and subsequent changes to the role and powers of that position;
- abolition or downgrading of specific women’s units in a range of Government Departments;
- review of the role of the Affirmative Action Agency.
These institutional structures play an important community education role especially about basic issues such as the rights of pregnant women and sexual harassment.
It is notable that in the past month we have had both HREOC and the Victorian Equal Opportunity Tribunal reporting marked increases in complaints of discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
The right to be pregnant without being subjected to harassment or discrimination is surely one of our basic rights as women – one that we thought we had well and truly won. It is alarming to think that there are increasing numbers of women out there facing overt hostility because they are pregnant.
Without strong and overt Government support for policies regarding equality of opportunity and anti-discrimination it is easy to foresee hard won acceptance of these basic rights eroded.
Even Liberal women such as Dame Beryl Beaurepaire are warning that:
“younger women have got to watch that the freedoms their mothers and grandmothers won for them don’t get lost.” (The Age, Good Weekend, 8 March 1998)
Examples of cut backs in women’s services under the Howard Government are:-
- reduced in funding to family planning agencies;
- a greatly reduced program of grants to women’s organisations;
- abolition of the Register of Women and Women’s Budget Papers;
- changes to the powers of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner;
- less stringent compliance requirements for Affirmative Action reports;
- abolition of the Women’s Statistics Unit in the Australian Bureau of Statistics;
Labor in government has always strongly supported these institutional arrangements for women and clearly has the better record regarding women’s issues.
In the deregulated working environment fostered and promoted by Howard and Reith, women need more, not less support.
Women want a fair and effective industrial relations system including comprehensive awards and a strong IRC. They need to protect their basic industrial rights such as secure and regular hours of work, equal pay, and to balance work and family responsibilities. Women need trade unions to be free to represent them effectively, i.e., collectively.
Women need a Government committed to maintaining those services that are crucial to our sense of community and our quality of life. That is services relating to health, aged care, education and childcare.
Women want a fair tax system. They don’t want artificial incentives to keep them out of the workforce. They don’t want to be forced back to dependency on their partner.
Women want Telstra kept in public hands. They know how important our telecommunications system is to our sense of community and to our future.
Women need a supportive regulatory environment and a Government actively committed to, and promoting, gender equality in all aspects of women’s.
Address by ACTU President, Jennie George. September 1998