Employment and care crisis hits women

April 28, 2013
Women’s employment figures in Australia have sharply fallen this year.

Three interesting pieces of information were released over the past week. Overall, they warn of a decline in women’s equality and in quality of life for the majority.

First, JP Morgan said women’s employment figures this year have sharply fallen from about 390,000 last year to less than 360,000 — the drop is as sharp in rate (but not in overall numbers) as during the global financial crisis (GFC).

While there has been employment growth since the GFC first hit there has been an overall shift in hiring from full-time to part-time work.

Australia has had one of the highest ratios of part-time to full-time work among the OECD countries with women holding nearly three-quarters of these jobs. What is interesting is that this year’s figures show a growth in part-time work and little to no growth of full-time work.

If women’s participation has fallen then it is in part-time work.

Second, the incoming National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell warned that Australia has one of the highest proportions of children living in jobless families in the OECD nations — some 15% of 0-14 year olds. This is coupled with a growing polarisation between rich and poor which saw one in six children living at or below the poverty line in 2010.

Third, the findings of the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable — a group of 30 senior researchers from 18 Australian universities — showed evidence pointing to the need to address major changes in the workplace, demographic profile and households.

Unless these trends are redressed, workers and families will face a decline in wellbeing and this will affect productivity and social inclusion. The roundtable has developed a series of priorities for action against which party policies can be judged in the coming federal election. These include childcare, parental leave, job security, flexibility, pay equity, taxation and superannuation.

What are the causes?

There is a fundamental contradiction in capitalist society. Work is paid, yet caring usually is not. It is privatised to the family, which usually means it falls on women.

People who are wealthy can pay for caring services but for the majority this isn’t an option. As women have entered the workforce in increasing numbers, the caring responsibilities for young children and the elderly places huge pressures on women to juggle work and caring.

Neoliberal policies over the past 30 years have worsened this situation with market-driven policies attacking and privatising the welfare services won by the unions in the post-world war period and by feminists from the ‘60s onwards.

The “individual pays” mentality has replaced any notion of social responsibility for welfare provision except at the “safety net” level. Taxation for companies and the wealthy has been cut to less than 30% so the funding base for social services has diminished. Thus, cuts to education, health and childcare provision impact back on the family unit, predominantly women, to fill the gaps.

This begins to explain the trends affecting women. Lack of available, affordable and quality of early childcare is a major factor in women’s decisions to return to work or to take up part-time or casual work.

The price of childcare has risen three times more than the rate of inflation since 2009.

In Sydney, where childcare is most expensive, fees in some suburbs reach $160 a day so long-term daycare is not an option for people without high paying jobs.

Often grandparents fill gaps in daycare or when parents juggle flexible work conditions. A recent survey showed one in 10 mothers did not return to work because of the high cost of childcare.

Accessibility is another factor. In NSW, parents can wait up to five years for a childcare place. Last year there was a 9% increase in children using childcare but only a 0.7% increase in childcare centres.

A recent study by the University of Queensland found that about 85% of all fathers with the youngest child under the age of five worked full time when only about 19% of mothers were in the same situation.

This was claimed to demonstrate that Australia has a much stronger male breadwinner culture than the US, Scandinavia and parts of Europe. Certainly there is evidence of mothers subject to the old stereotypes of male and female roles in a lose/lose situation — experiencing guilt in trying to achieve unreal expectations of being “good mothers” and “good workers”.

Perhaps a more realistic explanation is that the gender pay gap for full-time work has not improved in the past 30 years and is now going backwards. For part-time work — a fifth of the workforce — more than 2 million are casual workers with no leave benefits and little job security.

This includes many working mothers, especially single mothers, who have their hours set by employers who do not take into account the care requirements of children. This begins to explain the growth in poverty and unemployment.

Such poverty will increase into old age for most of these women, since their contributions of superannuation is much lower due to gaps in full-time work to cover care responsibilities. More than two thirds of retirement savings is owned by men, yet women live longer and will be more reliant on pensions.

Similar problems of unpaid care for the elderly are rising asbigger numbers of people reach old age.

It is no wonder that the long-running increase in women’s job participation since the 1960s seems to be stalling. The proportion of women aged 16-64 in the workforce is lower than it was four years ago.

Is this inevitable?

Scandinavia has quite a different model which integrates extensive public childcare with the family support system so that both parents are able to work or study.

Dual breadwinner status for both parents is combined with dual parenting opportunities supported by state funding. In the first year of a child’s life, both parents are encouraged to take paid parental leave, especially fathers. Ongoing parental allowances continue for sick children at home up to the age of 12.

Childcare in Sweden covers both children in preschool and children attending school.

All six year olds attend a pre-school class until compulsory education must begin at seven years. This is not child-minding. All forms of childcare are free or low-cost until compulsory education. All are paid for by a variety of tax measures which prioritise the development and learning of children, and oversee curriculum, teacher training and quality assessment as the first step in life-long learning.

This means that at least 72% of all children one to five years old, 94% of six year olds and 58% of seven to nine year old school children are covered. The labour force participation rate of mothers with small children has soared and the generational impact of poverty reduced.

A shift in Australia is possible. Women’s talents, training and experience should not be penalised or diminished by unfunded individualised care responsibilities. The Work and Family Policy Roundtable says these issues must be treated as national priorities. If they are not we are heading for a social tsunami.

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