The production of the report ‘Stretching Flexibility’ by Sara Charlesworth has been very timely, coming just when the trade union movement is facing up to the challenges of the Workplace Relations Act says Jennie George, ACTU President.

The ACTU is very proud to be associated with the production and launch of “Stretching Flexibility” by Sara Charlesworth.


The production of the report has been very timely, coming just when the trade union movement is facing up to the challenges of the Workplace Relations Act.


The ACTU, together with women’s groups and other community organisations, has stressed the particular burden which a deregulated industrial relations system would place on women.


Sara’s report reinforces what we have been saying for a long time – that an enterprise bargaining system will be harder for women and that disadvantaged and vulnerable workers need a strong award safety net and effective protection for their position when bargaining.


In submitting her report to the Senate Inquiry into the Workplace Relations Bill and appearing with Sue Walpole before the Committee, Sara was able to bring the issues associated with the movement towards more flexible hours of work into a very public arena.


“Stretching Flexibility” shows that the concept of flexibility can operate in two very different ways.


The first is employer driven flexibility – the ability to require workers to work the number of hours and the times required by the business. This has horrendous consequences for workers with family responsibilities, in particular. When associated with casual or part time work it also means that workers can never know what their income will be for a particular week.


The second type of flexibility is employee driven – allowing workers, consistent with the needs of the business, to determine their working hours so as to be able to carry out family responsibilities as well a meet study or other commitments.


This latter form of flexibility is very attractive to all workers, not just women. When unions opposed the move to flextime in some white collar industries in the seventies, their members quickly made their support very clear.


As the report shows, the most common form of flexibility being sought is employer driven, with an increase in managerial discretion in determining hours of work.


The report shows that even under the current legislation, the move towards more flexible hours creates difficulties for many workers, particularly those with family responsibilities. In some cases women have to leave the job; in others, their inability to work unpredictable hours means that they are denied access to career paths. The report highlights the importance of consultation; in a number of cases this made all the difference for the women involved.


Some might say that this report, by demonstrating some problems for women in enterprise bargaining , proves that the current Industrial Relations Act is not worth defending.


I think it shows that, even with a relatively high degree of statutory protection, women will be somewhat disadvantaged in an enterprise bargaining system. Remove those protection, and they will be defenceless.


It is for these reasons that some many groups and individuals made submissions to the Senate Inquiry. The original Bill would have done away with most of the protections currently afforded to vulnerable workers.


In particular, it would have severely stripped back the award safety net, abolished paid rates awards, cut out any requirement to consult with workers and watered down the “no disadvantage” test.


The agreement between the Australian Democrats and the Government has modified some of the worst aspects of the original Bill.


The major changes of benefit to women are:



  • Retention of roster provisions and breaks, as well as superannuation, as allowable matters in awards, together with an ability for the Commission to arbitrate to maintain entitlements where it can be shown that the issue is exceptional and there would be a harsh or unjust outcome if it was removed.




  • Retention of a comprehensive no disadvantage test comparing agreements to awards.




  • Scrutiny and vetting of individual Australian Workplace Agreements by the Employment Advocate and, if necessary, the Commission.




  • Retention of the Commission’s power to make orders for equal remuneration for work of equal value, including in the over award area.




  • Requirements that the employer consult with women workers and properly explain he effect of agreements.



These and other significant improvements represent concessions from the Government won as a result of the campaign waged by the trade union movement and a large number of women’s organisation. Women’s groups in particular, played a very important part in that campaign.


I believe that women have been let down, however, in relation to part time work, of great relevance when we talk about flexible working hours.


In the original Bill, the Commission was to be prohibited from setting minimum or maximum hours for part time workers. This was rightly opposed because of the resulting unpredictability of hours caused by allowing employers to employ all workers on a part time basis so that they would have total freedom to increase or decrease hours.


The other reason minimum hours are important is to give part time workers access to something approximating a reasonable income.


The agreement between he Government and the Democrats does provide a power to set minimum consecutive (that is, daily) hours for part time workers, who are defined as having pro- rata benefits and reasonably predictable hours.


The reality is that these additional provision provide little protection. Employers will want to be able to employ all workers as part timers working anywhere between three and 38 hours per week.


The crucial task will be to establish the meaning of reasonably predictable hours and to develop award provisions facilitating regularity of hours.


The ACTU will strongly oppose in the Commission the view that the only obligation on employers will be to give their employees reasonable notice of roster changes where this involves changing the number of hours of work.


As Sara has shown, providing that change can occur ” by mutual agreement” between the employee and employer is meaningless when there is gross inequality in the relationship. A much better model is differentiating between changes in hours initiated by the employer and by the employee.


The fact is two weeks notice that your hours will be cut in half or doubled is of little use when you have to pay for childcare whether you use it or not or where the childcare centre can’t take your child for the extra hours and neither can your family or neighbour.


Flexible part time work allowing employees to work out co-operatively with their employers when they work is a very positive development and should be encouraged; unfortunately, the legislation does exactly the opposite, increasing employer discretion and inevitably leading to greater casualisation of the part time workforce.


When some unions try to limit the spread of part time work in their industries it is not because they are anti-women. It is generally because they want to protect full time workers, many of them women, who cannot survive on less than a full time wage.


I sometimes think that women in more privileged positions don’t understand that offering only part time work to women whose full time wage is $400 or less per week is not always helping them. It is a different issue when we talk about half of $1000 per week.


The ACTU intended to campaign strongly around these issues of concern for part time workers.


Unions will resist any moves to reduce hours of part time workers or to replace full time jobs with a system where the employer can decide the number of hours and change these according to need. Unions will insist that the current protection provided through awards will be maintained for their members.


As the report shows, unions have been prepared to negotiate significant flexibility of hours, including extension of part time work, in the context of enterprise agreements delivering other benefits. This is quite different from having a virtually unrestricted system of part time work foisted on workers.


The question of working hours, including part time work, will be the focus of the second stage of the Living Wage Claim which we expect to go before the Commission during 1997. The question of hours is one we need to address, as the needs of workers and employers change, and as we look to solve the tragic problem of unemployment.


We will not, however, solve unemployment, by creating even more jobs involving three or ten hours per week, with virtual casualisation of the entire workforce.


This report will be an important resource in our campaign. I particularly wish to thank HREOC for funding the research, and Sue Walpole and the office of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for their assistance and support.


Thanks are also due to the members of the sub-committee of the ACTU Women’s Committee which had the role of overseeing the project.


Sara Charlesworth has had a long association with the liquor division of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union and her understanding of the problems faced by women in low wage industries, and of issues related to part time work is reflected in this very fine report.


Speech By Jennie George, ACTU President at the Launch Of “Stretching Flexibility” – 19 November 1996.