Morrison Missing: a record of his failure for working women details how badly the federal government has, and is, failing women. Released on March 1, just before International Women’s Day, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) report is a timely reminder of just how little respect the Coalition government has for the majority of women.
The report is based on a nationwide survey conducted by the ACTU. A majority said they are worse off now than a year ago: 77% said the cost of living had become worse; 55% said job security had worsened; and 56% believe the economy had deteriorated.
“Australian women are now less safe and economically secure than they were, and we have no national plan to fix these problems,” the report said. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic had “exacerbated existing inequalities”.
Australia dropped from 15th to 50th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report — an international ranking of countries — since 2006. It now ranks well below New Zealand, Britain, the United States and Canada.
“Treasurer Josh Frydenberg claims that the gender pay gap has narrowed to ‘record lows’ and women’s employment has risen to a ‘record high’. These claims don’t stand up to scrutiny,” the report said. Women earn, on average, $482.20 less than men each week, and they are more likely to be paid minimum rates of pay and often work fewer hours due to caring responsibilities.
The pay gap is even wider in the private sector, at about 17.5% compared to the public sector pay gap of 10.8%. This is due, in part, to secrecy practices that the federal government refuses to outlaw. “A key driver of gender pay gaps includes pay secrecy rules that give employers the upper hand in pay negotiations and hide pay discrimination against women.”
The ACTU wants pay secrecy practices to be outlawed and for “serious and sustained action to close the pay gap … stronger equal pay provisions in the Fair Work Act” and wage rises for “undervalued women workers”.
It also wants the paid parental leave scheme improved to provide 52 weeks paid leave at full-wage replacement “with both parents entitled to access the same amount”.
Although Frydenberg claimed that 66,000 jobs were created for women in January, “nearly 57,000 of these jobs were part time, most of which would have been casual”.
Australia has one of the highest rates of insecure work in the OECD, and women are disproportionately impacted. “Nearly 7 in 10 — 68% — part time jobs are held by women, and most of those jobs tend to be casual — with no guarantee of hours or even a job next week.”
“Women have less control over hours of work and job security and are more likely to have been sacked during the pandemic.” The report said women hold 68% of part-time jobs and “most of these are casual with no guarantee of hours”.
Morrison’s only significant contribution to job security was to worsen it, changing the Fair Work Act to make it easier for an employer to decide a worker’s classification as “casual”.
The ACTU said the solutions include: income support; higher wages, especially for those in undervalued service roles; ensuring women have access to fair pay and conditions; and introducing a right for casuals to convert to permanent work. It also calls for fixed-term contracts to be limited to two years.
Given the structural disadvantage throughout their working lives, it is little wonder women retire on average with “about half the amount of super as a man”. More than 40% of older single women are forced to live in poverty in their retirement years and women over 55 are the fastest growing group of homeless people.
The ACTU criticised the government for forcing “those with the least financial security to raid their super and jeopardise their retirement just to get by”. Under the pandemic lockdowns, it encouraged women to raid their superannuation early, rather than provide income support. This has hit older women particularly hard.
“Over 2 million women [applied] for early release of their retirement savings,” it said, describing the “early release” scheme as “short sighted, unfair and lazy policy response which has only exacerbated the gender pay and superannuation gap and increased the risk of poverty and homelessness in retirement for women.”
Superannuation must be “paid on all paid and unpaid parental leave and care-related absences” and demanded the government legislate for a superannuation guarantee rate of 15%.
In addition, up to 70,000 women are estimated to have been “coerced into withdrawing their super early by abusive partners,” the report found.
Women still have no right to paid family and domestic violence leave, despite wide support from unions and some employers. Sexual assaults against women nearly doubled over 2020–21 and domestic and family violence surged during the pandemic.
One-in-four women cite financial barriers for why they cannot leave abusive relationships. The ACTU wants 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave to keep women safe.
Violence against women at work, including sexual harassment, is also at crisis levels. Nearly two-thirds of women who responded to the ACTU’s Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces survey said they have been sexually harassed at their current or former workplaces.
It called on the government to implement all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, which found that Australia lags behind other countries and its legal system is “no longer fit for purpose”.
Other reforms the ACTU wants — an easier complaints process in the Fair Work Commission, requiring employers to stop sexual harassment and assault before it starts and a national gender equality strategy — have all been rejected by the Morrison government.
[The ACTU report includes a handy timeline of the Morrison government’s undermining of respect for women since publication of the Respect@Work report in 2020.]