Modern Awards Review 2023-24 – Submission by the Australian Council of Trade Unions in response to the Work and Care Discussion Paper

Policies, Publications & Submissions - March 12, 2024

Gender equality is a key concern of the ACTU and its affiliated unions. We have been enthusiastic supporters of recent reform efforts in this respect, informed by the experiences of our affiliates. We welcome the opportunity to participate in the Work and Care stream of the Fair Work Commission’s Modern Award Review 2023-24 (the review).

Our submission is intended to identify issues which may inform the consultations and the final report.  It reflects a consensus position of our affiliates on work and care issues which relate to particular questions posed by the FWC discussion paper, with respect to modern awards generally.  It is not a comprehensive statement of the entirety of the concerns and suggestions our affiliates wish to raise with the content or operation of modern awards collectively or individually. Our affiliates will make their own submissions to this review, which the ACTU supports, and which builds on this consensus position with industry or occupation-specific proposals or concerns.

The current regulatory framework and the way in which work is organised is failing to support many Australians to be both workers and carers. This is the experience of our affiliates, and is supported by the findings of the Senate Select Committee on Work and Care.

Women make up 71.8% of people who identify as primary carers. The impact of women’s care burden and the resulting work/care collision has been thoroughly examined over many years, with evidence demonstrating that for women, the effect is ‘curtailed career aspirations, reduced life-time earnings, and inadequate superannuation.’ The propensity of women with care responsibilities to end up in ‘poorly remunerated and insecure work without training and promotion opportunities, and with continuing clashes between work and care responsibilities’ has also been well-documented over many years.

Many of the issues raised in the discussion paper, including the predominance of part time employment arrangements characterised by low guaranteed hours and highly changeable rosters, inconsistent access to shift penalties and overtime as a result of span of hours provisions, overtime and time off in lieu of overtime arrangements, minimum engagements, access to additional annual leave, low remuneration for on-call and recall to duty, and unpaid time for work-related travel, training and administrative responsibilities disproportionately impact on women workers. They have significant negative impacts on the ability of workers to plan for and balance their unpaid caring responsibilities outside the workplace with their work commitments, plan financially and achieve economic security. There is a stark gendered difference in these entitlements between awards covering male dominated industries and those covering female dominated industries, with workers in female dominated industries being worse off in many ways – including have less secure employment, more unpredictable and precarious working arrangements, lower incomes, and less ability to manage their caring responsibilities.

Further, workers do not currently have adequate time or leave entitlements for their life outside of work, including to manage their caring responsibilities. Personal and carer’s leave entitlements are generally insufficient in their quantum, and their narrow scope means they do not reflect the diverse nature of families and caring arrangements, and exclude many workers with caring responsibilities. The particular caring and cultural obligations of First Nations workers are also poorly recognised in awards.

Despite recent improvements to flexible working arrangements, the right to request entitlement is still inadequate in several important ways, including that it’s not available to more workers, only available to workers with 12 months service, and is too easily refused by employers.

Finally, there are many ways in which awards do not provide workplace conditions that facilitate women’s full economic participation and gender equality, that although not raised in the discussion paper warrant consideration in this review.

Despite some significant improvements, much of modern work is still organised around an old idea: the default (male) employee unencumbered by parenting and caring responsibilities and available to work full-time throughout their life. The system of workplace regulation and workplace norms still largely adhere to this idea. When workplaces were designed the workforce was mostly made up of men, with women mostly taking on unpaid caring responsibilities in the home. Therefore, the system of workplace regulation and workplace norms were not been designed for the needs of women or workers with caring responsibilities. Despite some progress (such as flexible work, paid parental leave and so on), carers of children and others are still mostly required to work around this norm; any departure from the norm is required to make out a case to justify the departure. This situation is fundamentally disconnected from the reality of people’s working lives. The sheer number of issues raised in the discussion paper, and the gendered impacts they have, is a sign of how much more work there is to be done.

There is a clear need to establish a new ‘work and care social contract’ appropriate for the 21st century, with a right to care, alongside the right to work. Simply providing a living wage as income in exchange for work is not fit for a world where so many workers are required to combine their jobs with the care of others. This new social contract must include a review and changes to awards to ensure they accommodate the needs of women and carers, and continue to meet the Modern Awards Objective.

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