For decades, unions have been instrumental in working to improve gender equity at work and reduce the gender pay gap through collective bargaining, advocating for legislative reform, and running award test cases for equal remuneration and improved conditions such as carers and parental leave. Unions continue to play a pivotal role in improving gender equity in Australian workplaces. For example, recent research from the Fair Work Commission (FWC) shows that close to a third (32.77%) of enterprise agreements approved by the FWC between July 2018 and June 2021 (covering close to 1.2 million employees) provide access to some amount of standalone paid family and domestic violence (FDV) leave, with more than half of these employees (about 660,000) having access to 10 days or more paid FDV leave per year. Almost all of these agreements are union agreements.FDV leave is recognised as ‘a key element in efforts to secure greater gender equality’, because it maintains the economic security necessary to leave and recover from violent relationships. Without FDV leave, women face an ‘increased risk of financial instability and homelessness…’.There are countless other examples of concrete gender equity-related improvements in workplaces that have been delivered through union action. Requiring genuine consultation with, and involvement of, workers and their unions in addressing gender equity issues is crucial to improving the state of gender equity in Australian workplaces.

On 21 October, stakeholders were invited to make a submission to a ‘targeted review’ of the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 (the Act) to consider whether the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) has appropriate powers to ‘promote and improve gender equality in Australian workplaces, support employers to remove barriers to the full and equal participation of women in the workplace, and to eliminate discrimination on the basis of gender in relation to employment matters’. Submissions are due by 24 November 2021, with a report to be provided to the Minister for Women and the Minister for Women’s Economic Security ‘before the end of 2021’.

The Workplace Gender Equality Act has not been reviewed since its introduction almost a decade ago. This review purports to consider all aspects of the current regime, as well as areas of future focus to tackle gender inequity over the next ten years. Gender discrimination and inequality at work is entrenched and persistent. It remains one of the most significant and complex policy challenges facing our nation. While the principle of equal pay was embedded in federal industrial law over 50 years ago, on all measures a significant gender pay gap persists. The gap in fulltime earnings has hovered between 19% and 14.2% for two decades; increasing by 0.8% since November 2020. The true gender pay gap, factoring in hours worked, is over 30%. Australia has one of the highest rates of insecure work in the OECD, with women disproportionately affected. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing gender inequalities with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women of colour, gender diverse people, women with disabilities, younger women, older women, and low paid and insecurely employed women affected differently. Over the 15 year period between 2006 and 2021, Australia has fallen from 15th to 50th in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report. The current system is demonstrably failing and requires substantial reform, not just to the powers of WGEA, but to our industrial laws, budgetary processes and other policy settings.

The ACTU is deeply concerned that the timeframes for this review are far too short to enable adequate consideration and consultation on the nature and scope of this entrenched problem, or the role that WGEA should play in addressing it. It is of particular concern that the current timeframes have not allowed WGEA sufficient time to consult with stakeholders to develop a set of outcomes-based minimum standards to guarantee genuine and effective employer action towards gender equality. The lack of focus in the current framework on concrete action and progress, as well as the lack of focus on consultation with workers and unions, is a core weakness in the system, and the government’s consultation process has allowed no time for these matters to be properly considered. The government should allow proper time for a genuine review to take place, including for WGEA to develop a set of outcomes-based minimum standards for consultation.

This submission addresses the consultation questions in as much detail as possible given the short time available. Some of our affiliated unions have also made submissions and recommendations for reform, which we endorse.