International Women’s Day – International Women’s Day (8 March) is an occasion marked by women’s groups around the world. International Womens Day Address 8 March 2005, By Sharan Burrow, ACTU President and President of the global unions body ICFTU.

Why March 8?

From the turn of the century women in industrially developing countries were
entering the paid workforce in increasing numbers. They found employment in the
textile manufacturing and domestic service industries where conditions were poor
and wages low.

In march 1908 women workers (machinists) from the International Garment
Workers Unions took to the streets of New York in protest.

In 1909 the garment workers staged a national strike that lasted for 13
winter weeks.

It was of course formally recognised in 1977 by the United Nations and is
designated in many countries as a national holiday for women.

However International Women’s Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of
history; its campaigns and its celebrations are rooted in the centuries-old
struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men.

When women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by
ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together
to celebrate their Day, they can look back to a tradition that represents at
least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

In ancient Greece, Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men in order
to end war; during the French Revolution, Parisian women calling for “liberty,
equality, fraternity” marched on Versailles to demand women’s suffrage.

Following is a brief history of the most important events:

1909: In accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of
America, the first National Woman’s Day was observed across the United States on
28 February and marked the struggle of garment workers.

1910: The Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established
a Women’s Day, international in character, to honour the movement for women’s
rights and to assist in achieving universal suffrage for women.

1911: IWD was marked for the first time (19 March) in Austria,
Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men
attended rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office,
they demanded the right to work, to vocational training and to an end to
discrimination on the job.

Less than a week later, on 25 March, the tragic Triangle Fire in New York
City took the lives of more than 140 working girls, most of them Italian and
Jewish immigrants. This event had a significant impact on labour laws in the
United States.

1917: With 2 million Russian soldiers dead in the war, Russian women
chose the last Sunday in February to strike for “bread and peace”. Four days
after the strike the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government
granted women the right to vote. That historic Sunday fell on 23 February on the
Julian calendar then in use in Russia, but on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar
in use elsewhere.

There is in fact a century of history to add as new national struggles are
launched every year on this day across the globe.

Issues facing women today

Thus the solidarity that has connected women’s struggle for fairness
across the globe remains as relevant today as it has in previous centuries.

From my experience on the ICFTU and the ILO – including the Global
Commission for International Migration — key issues facing women

  • Poverty
  • Education
  • Health
  • Labour rights (especially in EPZs)
  • Discrimination
  • Equal pay
  • Family Friendly Workplaces
  • Childcare
  • But looking more closely at home to the situation of women in Australia

    Let’s begin with a topic close to your hearts – retirement
    incomes for women.

    Women and super

    Differences in retirement outcomes for women caused by:

  • Women have increased life expectancy than men — so need more savings
    in retirement to supplement Age Pension.
  • Women tend to spend less time in paid workforce owing to child rearing and
    caring responsibilities.
  • Average earnings of women are less than men
  • These differences lead to a ‘super savings gap’ for

    Savings gaps for women

  • To achieve a modest retirement income of super plus pension at 62.5% of
    pre-retirement earnings before tax, women need an extra super contribution of at
    least 5.6% (for young working women) and as much as 34.3% for women who are in
    their late 50s.
  • Men also have a ‘savings gap’ — but this ranges from 2.9%
    to 13.5%.
  • So women typically need to make extra contributions to their super (above 9%
    SG) at more than twice the level of men.
  • This info is from Rice Walker analysis.
  • Cause and effect

    Why have these inequalities in retirement savings occurred?

    Unfairness in the workplace

    Women experience higher levels of job insecurity, casualisation and lower
    wages than their male colleagues:


  • One in four working people are now employed casually – over one
    million women. This is a situation that can only get worse with one in every two
    new full time jobs created since 1996 being casual and 80% of part-time jobs
    being casual.
  • Low paid jobs:

  • In the last three years, of the net new women’s jobs created more than
    half (114000) paid less than $500 a week.
  • There are now more than four million Australians — half of all
    employees — earning less than $660 a week, or less than $34,000 a
  • And there are 1.3 million Australians surviving on wages of less than $300 a
  • Unequal pay for women

  • Women earn $150 a week less on a full time basis than men
  • On all total weekly earnings for full time workers, the gap is a massive
  • For part time employees – the increasingly preferred type of job for
    women – the gap between men and women has worsened.
  • While male and female part time employees have suffered a reduction in
    hourly rates of pay compared to full time employees, the reduction for women in
    their hourly pay has been four times that of men.
  • A bleak future for working women

    This year, the Howard Government intends to embark on the most radical
    changes to our workplace laws since federation.

    The harmful nature and full extent of these changes is starting to become

    For despite the enormity of the changes due to be wrought on the fundamental
    institutions that govern the relations between capital and labour in Australia,
    there is to be no genuine process of public consultation.

    In the short term, the laws already before Parliament and set to be passed
    this year include:

    Unfair dismissal

  • This law provides for an exemption for small businesses from unfair
    dismissal requirements.
  • It will affect more than three million people – half of them women and
    many of whom working in regional and rural areas.
  • It will mean anyone working in a small business can be sacked for no reason
    and without notice.
  • This is likely to be a licence for bullying and harassment in the workplace
    as it sends a message to bad employers that they can do what they like and their
    staffs have little recourse.
  • It is a backward step for women’s rights in the
  • Redundancy pay exemption

  • Again, this will apply to small business employees — helping to create
    a two-tiered workforce where a person’s rights and entitlements will
    depend on an arbitrary definition of company size.
  • Restrictions
    in unions providing help and information at workplaces

  • A little known new law called the ‘Right of Entry’ legislation
    is set to be passed that could make it practically impossible for employees to
    access information and help from a union at their workplace.
  • Employers will have power to choose the location an employee can see a union
    representative – for example in a room or area where they can be seen or
    over-heard by their manager or employer.
  • Employees that want a union to come and investigate a suspected underpayment
    or breach of their conditions will be required to be identified to their
    employer – even if they fear retribution for raising the issue
  • There are many instances where union organisers help head off a major
    workplace problem such as an instance of harassment or inadvertent

    This helpful role by union, as well as the access of employees to someone who
    can stand by them and help resolve a problem, is likely to be compromised by the
    new right of entry restrictions laws.

    Again, women who are vulnerable to exploitation I the workplace will lose

    Major workplace changes post 1 July

    This brings me to the major set of workplace changes that are expected in the
    latter part of the year once the Government gains full control of the Parliament
    post 1 July.

    In the last few weeks, the Government has clearly signalled it will:

    1. Make a hostile takeover of State industrial systems.

  • The Govt intends to introduce a national system based on awards that are
    stripped down to the barest minimum set of wages and
  • This will mean the axing of basic award protections – most likely to
    be eliminated are:
  • long service leave,
  • jury service leave, (leave to donate blood was taken out in previous IR
  • notice of termination, and
  • superannuation provisions . There is danger post 1 July in the
    superannuation choice environment that employees will be hoodwinked into putting
    their super into funds with excessive admin fees and charges.
  • The Government is also planning to collapse the existing skill-based career
    structure of minimum wages into a single minimum wage rate. This is a
    short-sighted move that would destroy incentives for low paid workers to acquire
    skills and would add to the current skills and labour crisis that is already
    causing major economic damage.
  • It would also prevent women from running work-value cases to help close the
    pay gap between men and women. For example, the childcare workers pay case
    – handed down earlier this year. Also, in the past the NSW librarians
  • The award classifications provide a means of benchmarking the complexity of
    a job so that it can be compared relative to other jobs internally and
    externally to other occupations.
  • 2. Scrap the role of the independent umpire in setting minimum wages and
    fairly settling disputes.

  • Both the Employment Minister, Kevin Andrews and the Treasurer, Peter
    Costello are clearly considering a scheme whereby they would not only appoint
    their own minimum wages ‘expert group’, but would then have the final say over
    the expert group’s recommendations.
  • This proposal would effectively mean the Liberal Party, when in Government,
    would control the pay packets of the 1.5 million hotel workers, cleaners,
    waiters, bar attendants; sales assistants and other Australians that are reliant
    on minimum wages.
  • It would mean that one in six working Australians would either never get a
    pay rise or would get much less than they do under the current ‘independent
    umpire’ system run by the AIRC.
  • Since 1996, the Howard Government has opposed every increase in minimum
    wages sought by the ACTU and if it had had its way, then workers on the minimum
    wage would be more than $2,200 a year worse off than they are
  • The ACTU has written to the Prime Minister to express its strong support for
    the current, politically independent, system of setting minimum wages and to
    correct misleading statements the Employment Minister has recently made about
    the role of the AIRC.
  • It is also not clear at this stage, under a diminished award system and a
    nobbled AIRC how test cases such as the Work and Family case would be
  • 3. Other changes likely include a renewed push towards individual
    contracts — AWAs.

  • There was an outrageous example of the use of AWAs to force down
    people’s wages and conditions just last week in Victoria.
  • As the AWU described the issue:
  • A group of mothers have launched a court challenge against their sackings
    from a Victorian mushroom farm after they refused to sign up to a 25% pay cut
    under the Federal Government’s individual contracts, Australian Workplace
    Agreements (AWAs).

    The six women were the only members of Merbein’s workforce of about 45
    who refused to sign the individual contracts. The new contracts cut their pay by
    an average of around $150 per week, or more than 25%. The AWAs replace hourly
    pay rates with a “piece” rate of 55 cents for each kilogram of
    mushrooms picked by the workers.

    Some of the women have worked for the company as mushroom pickers for nearly
    eight years, but were classified as “casuals” and have received less
    than $1,000 in termination pay.

    “Nearly all the sacked women have children to support. They are
    hard-working mothers in a difficult industry with serious occupational health
    and safety issues. Their only ‘crime’ was to refuse to sign an
    individual contract. Everyone else who signed the contracts kept their jobs, but
    have suffered significant pay cuts.”

    The effects of the Govt’s workplace agenda on

  • The Government’s IR agenda is a step down the low road to economic
  • It is about going down ‘the low road; in terms of the economy –
    a path that cheapens Australian workers rather than investing in them and their
  • Instead of bidding ourselves down in a global race to the bottom we
    can’t win – the Government should be building Australia’s
    economic security by investing in skills and infrastructure.
  • That’s what will protect and improve living standards and create jobs
    and opportunities for women and our families – not a government that is
    constantly interfering in the workplace and unfairly siding with
  • But all the indications are that the Govt is on about creating workplaces
    where you will work harder and longer for less.
  • What the Government’s plans will mean for families is longer working
    hours and less security. How can you plan a future when you can’t rely on
    your job?

    You can’t make people’s pay, employment conditions and jobs less
    secure without having a negative impact on families.

    We already know the difficulties facing women with children because of
    financial pressures – high mortgages and housing costs, lack of access to
    child care and the pressure of work today.

    The Government’s changes will only make things

    The changes they propose will also weaken communities because fewer people
    will be able to commit to time outside work.

    Workplace policy is more critical than even to families. In 1981 more than
    half (53%) of couple families with children had one partner working and one at
    home. By 2000 this had reduced to 34% and most couples with children 60% had
    both parents working and this trend shows no sign of slowing.

    But even the Governments own Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward has said
    the Government’s IR laws will put more pressure on families.

    Pru Goward is also facing the possible consequences of a campaign from ACCI
    to erode the SDA by eliminating the concept of “indirect
    discrimination”. This too requires our attention.

    Alternative reform options for the lives of women

    Women and work

  • Gender pay equity for women
  • Family-friendly workplaces
  • Secure, quality part time work
  • Paid maternity leave – not just money
  • More childcare places and made more affordable
  • Women and retirement savings

    Need to focus on getting more contributions in for women and to reduce the
    drains on what savings they have through:

    1. Super funds to provide discount on admin fees during non-contribution periods (e.g. care-related unpaid leave periods)

    2. Employers to provide super contributions during unpaid leave periods

    3. Government to:

  • Provide differential tax treatment for low contribution women members
    — e.g 30% super contribution tax exceeds marginal income tax rate
  • Remove exemption from SG for casuals and low paid
  • Promote the Govt co-contribution scheme to women
  • Promote industry funds and low cost funds to women in the choice environment
    — with tight controls on predatory practices
  • Women and the economy

    In the face of these challenges, we have a Government that is so focussed on
    their own narrow agenda that it is ignoring some of the economic fundamentals
    and this can only make matters worse for women.

  • Skills and labour shortages
  • A crisis in the nation’s physical and social infrastructure.
  • A chronic lack of investment in research and development that threatens our
    standing as an advanced economy.
  • Conclusion

    2005 – The report is not a healthy one in regard to equity for women.
    If we are to protect gains, including the Sex Discrimination Act and a fair IR
    system then our voices need to be raised in unison right now for a fair deal.
    Anne Summers says we have living through the death of equality. Ordinary women
    have fought to changed history throughout the centuries – our daughters
    and grand daughters demand no less of us.

    International Women’s Day Address – 8 March 2005, By Sharan
    Burrow, ACTU President and President of the global unions body –