The enactment of the Workplace Relations Act is the most significant development in relation to women and industrial relations says ACTU President Jennie George.

Developments In Industrial Relations And EEO

It is my view that women will be amongst the big losers from the new legislative environment, not so much because of specific provisions discriminating against women, but because the scheme of the Act is designed to leave workers more exposed to the operation of the market.


The Act gives greater priority to enterprise bargaining than was the case under the previous Act. It also introduces the concept of individual agreements and reduces the arbitral powers of the Commission.


Women, because of their generally weaker bargaining position in the labour market, have been historically more reliant on the centralised wage fixing system than men. This can be seen in the fact that women earn 94 per cent of average male award earnings, but only 55 per cent of male over-award payments, which are generally negotiated on an individual or enterprise level.


There is also evidence that women do less well in enterprise bargaining. They work in the industries where bargaining is least likely to occur. In some cases clerical and sales workers are excluded from the bargaining process in an enterprise. It is also apparent that agreements in female-dominated industries, such as retail, hospitality and finance, are more likely to include significant changes to spread of working hours and other increases in flexibility than is the case in male-dominated industries.


A report by Sara Charlesworth for HREOC found that, for a significant number of women, changes to working time resulting from enterprise agreements resulted in lower pay, reduced working hours, greater work intensity and increased stress of related to family responsibilities.


These trends were evident from the system of enterprise bargaining under the previous legislation, which included significant protections for more vulnerable workers which have been removed by the Workplace Relations Act. Under the previous legislation, agreements were collective in nature, with provision for union involvement, and public hearings before the Commission.


The Government’s original draft of the Workplace Relations Bill caused widespread alarm amongst women’s groups and other community organisations concerned about the needs of the low-paid, as well as amongst unions, because of the viciousness with which it was directed towards removing award entitlements and providing avenues to enable employers to force employees into sub-standard agreements.


As a result of community pressure, some significant improvements were made to the original Bill via the agreement between the Government and the Australian Democrats. Of particular relevance to women were:



  • The retention of the Commission’s jurisdiction in relation to equal remuneration for work of equal value.




  • Retention of superannuation, rest periods, rostering and protection for outworkers as “allowable matters” which can be included in awards.




  • Provision for “exceptional matters orders” where removal of an award condition would be harsh or unjust.




  • A requirement that state employment agreements be subject to a “nodisadvantage test”.




  • Some access to arbitration for employees under paid rates awards, such as teachers and nurses.




  • A system of scrutiny of individual Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs).



While these amendments are worthwhile, the experience to date of some aspects of the Workplace Relations Act have shown that the concerns of unions and community groups were well-founded.


In relation to AWAs, the limited evidence demonstrates that employees have entered into agreements which clearly disadvantage them. An examination of ten AWAs by the Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training found that alterations in working hours were common, in particular arrangements allowing employers to roster employees at any time of the day or night and on any days of the week without penalty or overtime rates.


One Melbourne restaurant, opening recently, required all employees prior to commencement to sign an AWA giving them a ten per cent wage increase in return for removing all loadings and penalty rates. It has been estimated that, at least for some of the employees, this represented a 30 per cent wage cut.


No explanation has been given by the Employment Advocate as to how such an agreement could have passed the “no disadvantage test”, let alone meet the Prime Minister’s pre-election commitment that employees would receive the same pay for doing the same work at the same hours as under an award.


I am not, however, claiming that the Advocate has gone off on some frolic of his own in approving such agreements. He is doing precisely what his political masters want, illustrated by Industrial Relations Minister Peter Reith’s recent call on employers to use AWAs to abolish penalty rates, a cute way of cutting wages without looking like that’s what you’re doing.


Along with individual agreements, which are having a slow but inglorious start, employer organisations, supported by the Federal Government, are commencing a concerted attack on awards, starting with the hospitality and retail industries, in which women are heavily represented.


Again, the major focus is on working hours, based on alleged employer requirements for “flexibility”, particularly in relation to part-time work. The restrictions on the Commission’s jurisdiction in relation to part-time work, preventing it from setting minimum or maximum hours for part-timers, or from establishing limits on the proportion of part-timers to be employed, is one of the most pernicious provisions of the Workplace Relations Act.


This is all based on the idea that flexibility is some absolute good, to the benefit of employers, employees and the nation. Let me address some of the myths about flexibility.


First, there is the myth that awards prevent employers rostering employees at any hour or on any day, and that they present a barrier to “flexibility”. The fact is that most awards allow employers to set any hours of work. The only thing is that there are penalty rates and overtime attached to working time at night, on weekends, or in excess of a normal day’s work.


Whether or not you think there is some disability attached to these working patterns, the reality is that for employees in low wage industries, with an hourly rate of as little $9, penalties and loadings are a crucial supplement to poverty incomes. In many cases, employer demands for flexible work hours are really demands for pay cuts, demonstrated by the almost universal lack of interest in proposals for a flat hourly or weekly wage rate that incorporates previous loadings, so that employees are not worse off.


The second myth is that flexibility is in the interests of women and men with family responsibilities. The reality is that it all depends on whose flexibility you’re talking about. Jobs which allow women to arrange their working hours to suit their childcare arrangements are excellent, and employers who allow this are to be congratulated, and well deserve awards for family friendliness.


These arrangements are becoming more common, as employers realise that where they have invested heavily in skilled, particularly professional employees, it doesn’t make sense to lose them because of lack of ability to combine work with child rearing.


But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that’s what Mr Reith or the employers are talking about when they call for more flexibility. When they claim the greater freedom from award restrictions will allow employers to employ more people, they mean to give employers greater discretion over working hours at a lower cost.


That kind of flexibility is of little assistance to low-paid women with family responsibilities. Their primary requirement is certainty; if hours are increased or changed around it is often impossible to alter childcare arrangements. If working hours are reduced, childcare still has to be paid for, as well as meeting the family’’ bills with reduced income.


The third myth is that part-time work is what women want. Many women, of course, do prefer to work part-time, and its greater availability has assisted many women to combine child rearing with participation in the paid workforce. On the other hand, many women need to work full-time for financial reasons. The issue for workers, female and male, working in industries where they may take home as little as $300 per week, is not whether or not they can work part-time, but that full-time work is not available.

I don’t think that the retrenched clothing trades workers who participated in a recent Melbourne University study were happy that, if they had worked at all since being retrenched, it was likely to have been only some part-time cleaning work.


The restrictions on the Commission’s jurisdiction in the Workplace Relations Act means that minimum hours for part-timers in awards could be reduced from the current 19 or so to as little as three per week. There is no evidence of any significant demand from part-time workers for fewer hours, while the proportion of part-time workers wishing to work more hours has doubled since 1978.


The recent call by Mr Howard for a debate on the relationship between minimum wages and unemployment has sinister implications for women.


Together with the argument, from Mr Howard, Senator Vanstone and other Government Ministers, that the level of our social safety net is a cause of our unacceptably high levels of unemployment is part of a softening up exercise, not only for an attack on award wages and conditions, but for some serious slashing of social welfare benefits in the name of providing incentives to work.


Women are concentrated in industries which pay lower than average wages, and are more likely to be wholly or partly dependent on social security benefits. Clearly, they are in the Government’s sights, to take up low-paid, part-time jobs in the service sector (these are the jobs allegedly “created” through lowering tariffs and destroying manufacturing industry), with a time limit being placed on the receipt of social security benefits, particularly those for supporting parents, to provide the stick.


It’s not just Government policies that matter. Management policies are also critically important to ensure that women are able to achieve real equality in the workplace.


Management needs to understand that equal opportunity and family friendliness requires more than some innovative leave provisions, although these are important. There needs to be a real effort to ensure that part-time work seems to have created a group of employees shut out of mainstream career opportunities. In a report for HREOC, Leonie Still found that women in the finance industry “felt that being married and having children presented a career barrier that was almost insurmountable”.


The recent victory by the Finance Sector Union on behalf of a large number of female employees of the Commonwealth Bank who had been seriously disadvantaged as a result of taking maternity leave, highlights the need for employers to think through the effect of their policies on particular groups of employees.


I do not want to be totally negative about the prospects for women in the new environment. Unions and women’s groups were successful in maintaining in the Act the Commission’s jurisdiction in relation to equal remuneration for work of equal value in. Given that most discrimination against women is based on over-award payments, this was an important achievement. The ACTU has had considerable success in using the provisions to raise awareness about cases of pay inequity, and has settled a number of such cases.


There is a growing awareness that discrimination against women in unacceptable, and that this extends to what could be called indirect discrimination. In a number of the pay cases resolved by the ACTU, women did different jobs that the men, involving similar or greater skills, but received lower over-award payments, often because heavy lifting was not involved.


I hope that we have come too far to allow the clock to be turned right back for women, and that all Australians will reject an industrial relations model based on widening the gap between the few with secure, well-paid employment, and those, amongst who women will be heavily represented, who are forced into part-time, precarious employment offering maximum flexibility to employers, but with virtually no security for themselves or their families.


Address By ACTU President Jennie George at the FSU National Women’s Conference Dinner. Tuesday 26th August, 1997 Melbourne.