Restructuring women's jobs and incomes

Issue 

Women in a Restructuring Australia
Anne Edwards & Susan Magarey (eds)
Allen & Unwin, 1995. 319 pp., $29.95
Reviewed by Melanie Sjoberg
We are constantly confronted by imagery and articles in the establishment media which attempt to enforce the view that women's liberation and feminism are passé. After all, wasn't equal pay introduced in 1972? Don't we have the protection of sexual discrimination and equal opportunity legislation? Increasing numbers of women are entering the work force, and the federal government is increasing the number of child-care places. Yet the reality for a majority of Australian women tarnishes this glossy image. Too often, we need to reach for an academic text to locate the policy background and the facts that speak to this reality. This suggests that other organisations, such as trade unions, which should be more directly concerned with the impact of social and economic policy, are not producing the necessary material in an accessible form. Women in a Restructuring Australia provides the substance to rectify this silence. It is a useful tool for students, journalists, union activists and researchers seeking the relevant data and critical analysis to understand the impact of economic rationalism on women in the work force. The compilation covers the breadth of women's situation in relation to pay and working conditions, superannuation, welfare policy and immigration. The essays in the book were developed from a workshop of feminists held in November 1992. The structure moves from an examination of the impact of global restructuring and its influence in Australia, to more detailed sections analysing women's work, income and labour market flexibility; welfare, social security and superannuation; and social restructuring. The book contains substantial appendices of graphs and statistics. For example, in 1980 married women with children were 46% of the female work force, but by 1992 they were 61%. The most significant growth in women's employment occurred in the years up to 1990; since that time the jobless rate for women has been growing. Despite the dramatic job growth, 75% of all part-time workers are still women, and 3/4 of these are casual. The number of people not covered by awards has also been increasing: between 1985-90 up from 15% to 20%. The wholesale and retail sectors, which have a high concentration of women workers, are 20% award free; for finance and property, the figure is 32%. Barbara Pocock, in her chapter on women's work and wages, discusses an SA study which identified commission sales, telemarketing, nannies, support carers and food processing as the major areas with low award coverage. These are all sectors in which women predominate. She refers back to award restructuring of the early 1990s, which promised gains for women in clerical and retail employment, and shows details of the ACTU research which attempted to value women's work. This was never achieved in practice. In 1992 the average weekly full-time earnings of a male worker were $670.30, whilst a full-time woman averaged $532.90. If part-time employment is factored in, the disparity becomes even greater, with men averaging $599.50 but women only $395.80. Deborah Mitchell identifies policy changes that have further undermined women's relative income. She notes that the introduction of affirmative action in the public sector and later private industry helped to even out the opportunity for women to progress along career paths in some sectors. Similarly, the increased provision of public child-care since 1983 and the introduction of parenting leave and family leave have assisted the participation of women. She notes that features of the early 1980s industrial relations policies were a positive step — equal pay and the pursuit of comparable worth, an environment that encouraged collective bargaining and the maintenance of a minimum wage. In the 1990s, however, industrial relations policy has shifted dramatically to encourage decentralised wage bargaining. Mitchell shows that throughout the OECD countries there is a strong relationship between centralised bargaining and an improvement in women's earnings. Where decentralisation has been pursued, equal pay and equal opportunity are inadequate to protect women. "Power in the labor market, union organisation amongst women, union leaderships by women and women committed to pay equity and effective workplace campaigning remain essential to workplace equality for women even within a generally centralised system. The current shift towards enterprise bargaining in wages and conditions ... holds even greater dangers for women's pay and work." Martina Nightingale declares it "puzzling that the trade union movement could have conceded so much ground to have embraced the enterprise bargaining agenda". Collectively, the essays present a clear argument in support of the view that women, as workers and carers, are suffering under the onslaught of economic restructuring. Neither individually nor collectively, however, do the writers offer any clear direction for change. Perhaps this is expecting too much from one book. It is true that increasing numbers of women are playing a role in trade unions, even at the senior level. The recent pageantry surrounding the election of Jennie George as new ACTU president bears witness to that. Those women need to challenge the long ACTU-ALP consensus. It is not enough to hope that friends in the ALP will deliver the goods. Women will benefit, as will other workers, from an independent trade union movement — one that is prepared to mobilise its membership and to challenge the ALP policy agenda, rather than assist in its implementation. Nightingale points out that many union officials and organisers have been trapped in the scenario where they are negotiating workplace enterprise bargains with little bargaining power. There would be an interesting shift if these problems were used to mobilise members against both major parties' economic rationalist agenda and challenge the ACTU leadership. We need to do more than try to influence political parties and community organisations. We need to build an alternative that attempts to implement the policies that benefit women and the community.