What Women Want – is a guarantee of no disadvantage

Women’s organisations, along with mainstream churches, the welfare sector, and trade unions, have expressed concern about the potential impact of proposals to change Australia’s industrial relations framework.

A consortium of groups coordinated through the National Foundation for Australian Women has held a series of workshops at which specific concerns were articulated. NFAW plans to meet with the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, The Hon. Kevin Andrews, in September to communicate these concerns.

There are five major concerns that relate to wages and pay equity, unequal bargaining power, workplace flexibility and family friendly employment conditions, and job security.

The first concern is that women will be disproportionately affected by the proposals because of their reliance on rates of pay and conditions enshrined in awards; women also tend to lack bargaining power when compared to their male colleagues. The second concern is that the changed arrangements for determining minimum wages and conditions, when coupled with the loss of mechanisms to address equal pay, will translate into lower wages and poorer conditions for women. The third concern is that the proposed changes will lead to an increased casualisation of the workforce. The fourth concern is to do with the changes to Unfair Dismissal, which NAFW believes will undermine the job security of both women and men and further inhibit their ability to bargain. The final concern is that the proposed changes will disempower women who seek flexible work arrangements such as family friendly work arrangements.

As we all know, Australia is approaching full employment, and there are pressures to bring groups into the workforce that have previously remained out of it. In response to these pressures, the government has proposed changes to income support policies that will significantly disadvantage women with disabilities and sole parents (both men and women) who currently receive benefits. The government call this ‘welfare to work’.

NATFW’s experience is that most individuals who are able to work want to work. Of course, there are exceptions such as those restricted by disability or those who care for others, particularly disabled children. But it is generally well-established that sole parents, once their children are of a suitable age, already have a high rate of workforce participation so long as family friendly job opportunities exist.

Recent UK policy affecting disabled people guaranteed adequate support and incentive to join the workforce. However, the Australian government has rejected this approach wholesale and instead is threatening existing and future pensioners with lower direct benefits (reducing them to the level of NewStart), with fewer associated benefits; and they are doing this while simultaneously threatening to strip away the range of minimum award conditions which might ensure successful workforce participation.

It is recognised at every level of inter-governmental relations – from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on down – that there are serious workforce shortages in areas such as education, child welfare and health. Indeed COAG has sought a report on health workforce issues from the Productivity Commission; reports in other areas may follow. These are fields where the re-training of mature female workers is a well-established response. It is hard then to see a justification for stripping from the former Jobs, Education and Training (JET) Program the facility to provide support to sole parents undertaking university degrees in fields such as teaching, nursing or social work. If the argument is that it is more equitable for mature adults with child and family responsibilities to be placed on equal footing with school leavers and compete for HECS places at universities, then it appears a triumph of ideology over policy.

Women’s organisations have raised funds from personal and organisational philanthropy to enable the NFAW to engage the National Centre for Economic and Social Modelling (NATSEM), University of Canberra to begin modelling the impacts. The University has matched the funds raised by NFAW. The NATSEM Report will be available as of 5 September from NFAW and NATSEM. Preliminary results appear to suggest adverse impacts of a very savage nature; especially for an already impoverished group of families.

The overall problem with the government’s proposals is that there is more stick than carrot. This is an approach the women’s organisations hope to persuade the government to moderate.

There is a glimmer of hope. It appears that the Prime Minister is showing a willingness to listen to the concerns being raised about his proposed changes to industrial relations. There is also some movement already around just what might be the package of minimum award conditions. However, there is still a major concern for women with family responsibilities and disabilities, around the removal of the right of appeal under unfair dismissal legislation.

Also, if there is to be any reality around the idea that work-family balance is a ‘barbeque stopper’ then there must be incentives to make workplaces family-friendly. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is precisely the small to medium business who will be exempted from the unfair dismissal provisions who currently include the worst offenders in the areas of workplace fairness and the honouring of awards.

Any change which forces individuals to take their case of unfair dismissal to the Federal Court rather than to a cheaper and less intimidating source of mediation, such as the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) in its current form and with its existing role, represents a dangerous measure for women with family responsibilities and for disabled people.

Then there is the issue of actually negotiating a living wage with the AIRC largely out of the picture, without current basic minimum conditions protected, and with a Fair Pay Commission (FPC) that at present has only vaguely defined specific roles and processes, but whose principal purpose will be to set minimum wages at levels lower than would otherwise be determined by the AIRC. The question is: can women do well enough out of Australian Workplace Awards?

Professor David Peetz has written:

Moreover, there is stronger evidence that women do worse in the open individual bargaining environment of individual work-place agreements. For men, the difference between earnings under the two systems was not significant, but women on AWAs had hourly earnings some 11 per cent less than women on registered collective agreements. This was a pretty noteworthy figure, considering the Minister’s earlier claim that women earned 32 per cent more on AWAs than on collective agreements. The gender pay gap was worse on AWAs: whereas women on registered collective agreements received 90 per cent of the hourly pay of men on such agreements, women on AWAs received only 80 per cent of the hourly pay of men on AWAs. (http://workers.labor.net.au/features/200506/b_tradeunion_awas.html )

If there is to be a broad move away from collective agreements then is it essential that there is some protection mechanism developed for women (and men) who have a limited capacity to negotiate effectively on their own behalf. This might be in the form of new entities, other than existing trade unions, who can negotiate on behalf of disadvantaged workers; it might be continuing education programs on ‘how to negotiate your new wage’ or there may be other options.

At present there are provisions in the current Act that enable an employee to appoint a bargaining agent). But there needs to be scope in the legislation for new or emerging entities to be appointed as bargaining agents, if the current unions fail to take up this function. If bodies outside the current system are to perform this important role, there will be a need for start-up and possibly for continuing government financial support to make the service widely accessible.

Few bodies currently representing disabled women have the resources to do this at the present time. There are currently some former trade union officials in private practice who act as guns-for-hire for individuals who can afford to hire their own personal AWA negotiator. The low paid are unlikely to be able to afford such a service.

A solution to this problem might be provided by existing adult and continuing education bodies, including some women’s organisations such as the YWCA, or Business and Professional Women’s Associations, to provide further education programs for women on negotiating AWAs and improving economic sophistication generally. Either way, most potential providers will require government support since most do not have the resources to do this at present.

Before women can be satisfied with policy changes to the industrial relations system of the scale and nature proposed by the federal government, a number of fundamental issues need to be re-thought and resolved.

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