The Howard government's Work Choices laws "have had an overall negative effect for women in the work force", Griffith University Professor David Peetz told Green Left Weekly on February 27. "The slow trend toward improvement in female compared to male levels of pay and conditions has been reversed under Work Choices, threatening much of the gains of the previous 10 years", said Peetz.
"At the broadest level, [in Australia and internationally] the gradual trend has been to reduce inequality overall in the workplace, reflecting the successes of the women's movement over many years. On the other hand, the trend between rich and poor has been going the other way, toward greater inequality", he said.
Peetz was commenting on the findings of his recently released paper, "Brave New Work Choices: What is the Story So Far?" Asked how Work Choices is affecting working women in particular, Peetz said, "Women are more likely to be vulnerable to Work Choices in the first place. Working women are more reliant on industrial awards. They are less likely to be unionised or under collective agreements. Collective agreements tend to be above awards, and under individual contracts people have less market power in the workplace.
"Overall, around 20% of the work force is reliant on awards — around 25% of women and 15% of men. Women also tend to be less aggressive in the labour market. And being less organised, they gain less from the attempts by unions to improve the position of their women members", Peetz said.
"Work Choices is aimed at getting people off collective agreements and onto AWAs [individual workplace agreements], and breaking down the collective strength of unions.
"Some studies on negotiation behaviour have suggested that women are less likely to ask for more money, and be less confident and less likely to be successful in negotiations for individual agreements. In any case, most AWAs tend to be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
"The changing role of industrial institutions is important also. They have been cut off at the knees by Work Choices. The AIRC [Australian Industrial Relations Commission] and the state industrial commissions have had their powers removed to deal with gender pay issues.
"For example, equal pay cases in Queensland and elsewhere can't now happen in a meaningful way because state commissions now only have jurisdiction over public sector workers and unincorporated bodies. And use of the AIRC for such issues is being taken away.
"It's still early days with Work Choices, which came into effect less than a year ago, but the data so far clearly shows that the gap between men and women in the work force has widened.
"New figures, [available since the Peetz report was completed], emphasise that the major problem is in the private sector. The public sector is somewhat more protected. Average weekly ordinary time earnings in the private sector, in real terms, [taking account of inflation], have fallen 1.7% for females, compared to a rise of 0.6% for males.
"The Labour Price Index, measuring average real hourly earnings for particular industries, gives no gender breakdown. But, since Work Choices came in, the hospitality and retail sectors have been dropping quite badly. A majority of employees in these industries are women.
"Hospitality has dropped 1.2%, while retail has fallen 0.8%. It's not so much the size of the drop, but the fact that these sectors are falling behind which is most disturbing. Behind the reduction is the fact that under Work Choices penalty rates are being lost, through non-union agreements and AWAs.
"The Office of the Employment Advocate [the government body which polices Work Choices], won't publish figures on this. But a significant loss of penalty rates is a fact, and women make up nearly 60% of the work force in those industries", Peetz stated.
Asked about the effect of reduced rights at work and dismantling of the unfair dismissal laws, Peetz replied: "The impact of Work Choices is not just on the letter of the law, but on methods of management by employers. Some employers have changed their approach to management.
'There is a general perception of a change in the balance of power in the workplace. Women are more vulnerable in these circumstances. Many women may feel unable to exercise their still existing rights, against discrimination and harassment in the workplace, for example, in the new conditions.
"While there is still limited evidence, there have been incidences where employers think they have more power than they actually have under the law [to act in an arbitrary fashion]", Peetz concluded.