Under the Howard Government the clock is being turned back for working women says Jennie George, ACTU President.

Women’s Right To Work

Under the Howard Government the clock is being turned back for working women.


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.


What Sort Of Work

Women want and need jobs and careers and they want to combine these with having families.


In the deregulated working environment that has been fostered and promoted by the Howard Government women want:-



  • 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.


Women have been left to bargain with their employers in an unequal bargaining position.


Specific examples of how these issues that are of concern to women workers are being affected in this environment are:-



  • hours of work are being reduced or are no longer predictable;




  • workloads are being increased and causing stress about the work being performed as well as making it harder to balance family responsibilities;




  • equal pay is being undermined with wage increases dependent on bargaining strength.


Hours Of Work – Retail

In the retail sector, where nearly a quarter of all employed women work, the major issue for many years has been ensuring permanent part-time work with regular hours providing sufficient wages and with consultation about rosters.


Under the Workplace Relations Act award provisions regulating part-time work have been prohibited. This has been to the major disadvantage of women in this sector.


These protections can now only be enforced through enterprise agreements which means that unionised women may well be protected but leaves all those who are not covered by agreements left to the preference of their employer.

Increased Workloads – Health

In the health sector which is the second largest employer of working women, nurses have identified increased workloads as the key industrial issue facing them. They are concerned about the impact this has on the quality of patient care they are able to provide.


Nurses are also concerned about hours of work with many being placed on short term contracts or employed only for short peak hours.

Job Losses – Finance Sector

Women workers have also been at the receiving end of job losses that now seem to be a permanent feature of the Australian industrial landscapes.


In the finance sector which is the third largest industry employing women (15% of women workers) job losses have been high.


In the past four years approximately 40,000 jobs have been lost from the banks alone and more have been foreshadowed. Overwhelmingly these have been women’s jobs.

What Women Need


Return of comprehensive awards.


Restoring the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission to arbitrate about all issues that affect women at work.


Equal pay.


The capacity for collective agreements.

Collective Bargaining


The achievements that unions have made for women in the past have been won through collective action and then through the Commission as test cases. Major victories have been:-



  • Maternity Leave.




  • Equal Pay




  • Family Leave.




  • Part-time work protections like sufficient hours and access to training and career paths, etc.




  • Equal opportunity programmes including sexual harassment policies and procedures.



Union membership does provide protection for women. For example, women union members earn $95 (22%) more than women who are not union members. Part-time union members earn $65 (26%) more than non-union part-timers.


It is therefore critical that women continue to insist upon their right to collectively bargain as well as to have the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission restored.

Supportive Government Framework

Women workers also need a supportive Government framework regarding Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action.


The Howard Government has downgraded and dismantled many of the regulatory and administrative mechanisms established to support working women. For example:



  • 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;




  • the current review 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.


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.

In Summary

In the deregulated working environment fostered and promoted by Howard and Reith, women need more, not less support.


Women want an effective industrial relations environment 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 supportive regulatory environment and a Government actively committed to, and promoting, Equal Employment Opportunity.


By Jennie George, ACTU President. “Australian Women Deserve Better: A Satellite Discussion”. Sydney, 28 July 1998