ACTU President Sharan Burrow explains how the ACTU is shaping the social, political and economic trends to improve the lives of working women.

I apologise for being unable to be with you today and thank my colleague Michelle Bishop for filling in at short notice. Jenny George has been a long time champion of this Conference and I am pleased to be able to continue this practice. Indeed, despite the tremendous gains women made in the last century, the challenges for the 21st century loom almost as large. Thus meeting places such as this Women, Management and Employment Relations Conference remain critical.

Union leaders and activists tend to view the need for change through the lens of a campaign. What is the issue, how can we act to get it resolved or implemented or overturned. What resources do we need, what’s the campaign schedule and how do we assess progress?

In our world there are remarkable individuals but most action is collective and all victories are owned by those involved. In regard to internal change the challenge is one of gaining a critical mass of support or in our language “having the numbers”.

When we consider the past hundred years it is instructive to realise that the struggles for women remain largely the same:

  • The right to vote has been established and we have 25% of Federal politicians who are women. While this is almost double the international average of around 13% equal representation is a long way off and if we want this to be the century for a woman Prime Minister or indeed Presidents stamp then we are going to have to work for it.
  • Equal pay was a major victory for women and the decisions of 1969/1972 and 1975 were duly celebrated. Likewise the IR decisions in regard to ‘pay equity’ clauses in NSW and Queensland. However on the 50th anniversary of the ILO Equal Pay Convention The ACTU put out a press release titled 50 years on women are shortchanged $166. Industries where women dominate are still industries where work is undervalued – aged care, childcare, health, education, hospitality, retail and finance. Further women are almost twice as dependent on awards as men and the Howard Government has deliberately undermined the award system.
  • Changing the management culture has always been a feminist aspiration yet according to Glenice Wood from the University of Ballarat only about 5% of senior managers are women. While around 30% of women hold positions on government boards the private sector figure is a mere 10%.
  • Likewise the eradication of bullying and sexual harassment have long been priorities for women yet 87% of the 2000 callers to the the ACTU National OHS Campaign “Being bossed around is bad for your health ~ the workplace is no place for bullying”, said that intimidating behaviour, shouting, ordering and belittling were occurring in their workplaces. Eighty per cent said they worked in an oppressive, unhappy workplace. Other experiences included abusive language, nasty or hurtful teasing and jokes and being afraid to speak up about conditions, behaviours and health and safety. 77% of callers reported that a manager or supervisor was responsible for the bullying behaviour.
  • The participation of women in the labour market has increased to 44% but the questions of job security and reasonable hours are priority issues when, of the 2 million people employed as casual workers, almost 60% of them are women and the bulk of unpaid overtime is also done by women.


However if you adopt the theory of critical mass so popular with scientists then there are good news stories in these and other indicators of progress:

With 34% of Australia’s 1.3 million small business operators being women the growth engine in our communities is in good hands. Add to this the drive from the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry to establish a women’s bank and we see some really courageous thinking about investment in the talents and creativity of women along with investment in our communities. If you have a passion for the trend to ethical investment as well as some good business sense I would buy shares now.

In our own patch women can also take heart. The unions movement is growing again and the net growth in 2000 were all women. There was a net increase of around 34,000 women and a net loss of 8,000 men. We don’t want to lose men in the unions but we are delighted to see that targeting women works.

The executive of the ACTU is now 50% women. This is a marvellous story of how to generate change. The Women’s Committee, led by Jennie George, championed affirmative action targets in the 1980’s. Having reached 40% in 1997, women led the debate at the 2000Congress to change the rules. Having half of the executive being women is certainly changing the culture. As a woman president this is a delightful shift from the days when only a few of us sat at the executive table. It took 16 years from the point at which Jennie was elected as the first woman executive member to the achievement of equal representation. We are justifiably proud of this achievement.

However we must now use that influence to take on issues for women.

Hence I think that the best contribution I can make to this discussion is to represent the ACTU as the change agent and indicate the priorities to which we have committed ourselves.

Casual Rights

With more than a million women employed in casual work the ACTU and unions will work to implement improved standards in all industries. The benchmarks established in the ‘Metals Casuals Case’ provide for 25% loading and the right to convert to permanent part time or full time work as appropriate after 6 months.

The Parental leave case established fundamental job security for those casual workers in employment for twelve months or more who seek to start or extend a family through the right to twelve months unpaid leave.

ACTU Executive last week endorsed the proposal to make an application in regard to seasonal workers.

This agenda will remain a priority for the ACTU and the successes will assist women greatly.

Reasonable Hours

Australia has the second longest working hours in the OECD, with more than ¼ of the workforce working more than 50 hours a week. More than 20% of Australian employees work unpaid overtime. In the finance sector a million hours of overtime are worked every year, 60% of them unpaid and the majority done by women. Around 25,000 additional jobs would be required to cover these hours. Likewise in education some 23,000 additional jobs would be required to deal with overtime – all of it unpaid.

By comparison more than 25% of Australian employees work hours that would be illegal in Europe.

As part of its test case application for a reasonable hours clause the ACTU has commissioned a study of fifty families. Commissioned from Barbara Pocock this study will shock the nation in regard to the cumulative impact on families.

To coin a phrase ‘there should be a law against it’ and we are working on it.

Paid maternity Leave

The ILO Convention establishes the international standards of 14 weeks paid maternity leave. Less than 30% of women in Australia have access to paid maternity leave. This is a priority for 2002.

Equal Pay

The evidence is shocking and while I don’t have time to detail it today on an industry by industry basis when we circulate this paper we will provide it for you. Suffice to say that despite the historic victories this issue will also be a campaign issue in 2002.

Carers Leave

An area of growing social responsibility the ACTU will consider a case to extend carers leave in 2002

Fair Industrial Legislation

The Howard Government must stand condemned for its unfair industrial relations laws. Polling shows that more than 86% of Australian support the Industrial Relations Commission as the independent umpire and think that its powers should be restored. We will seek to restore fair industrial legislation after the defeat of the Howard Government.

The fundamentals include:


  • the restoration of the powers of the Commission
  • a central recognition of the right to collective bargaining
  • the abolition of AWA’s and
  • the re-establishment of a relevant award system.


Australia is the only country in the democrativ world that fails to recognise in legislation the core right or working people to collectively bargain.


To seek inspiration for the knowledge, courage and tenacity to change the context of our lives I recommend the philosophy behind a book written by Patricia Aburdene and John Naisbitt called “Megatrends for Women”. They began this book with a question – “What do women need to know about to be empowered now and in the future? There answer is “women need to know about other women and how from every walk of like they are shaping social, political and economic trends”. They concluded that “when the subject is women, what is happening is awesome, for women are transforming the world we live in.”

This speech was given to the 13th Women, Management & Employment Relations Conference.