Improving the Proposed IR & Welfare Systems for Women

There are many changes in the Industrial Relations (IR) and welfare system that will differentially affect men and women in their work places and homes. Women workers in a range of areas will be disadvantaged because of their domestic responsibilities, the types of jobs they hold, the particular conditions of their work and their different types of workplaces. This paper explores some of these problems and proposes avenues for mitigating the damage.

Further gaps will arise between men and women’s hourly rates of pay. Many jobs with mostly women employees are still undervalued, eg child care and other personal services. Mostly consideration of comparable worth has been determined by state awards, with some cases still incomplete and some not yet started. These anomalies will remain unless the federal legislation specifically adopts new Equal Remuneration Principles similar to those found in the New South Wales Equal Remuneration Principles.

Women have been shown in many studies to be less assertive in pay bargaining, regardless of education or knowledge. This may be exacerbated by family time pressures, inexperience or expected feminised modesty, particularly when negotiating alone. Research shows an increasing wage gap between men and women workers when AWAs are compared with collective agreements. The rights of employers to refuse collective bargaining or use of awards should be over-ridden if more than half of any organisation’s employees are shown to want a collective agreement, or the award.

Collectively negotiated agreements have more family friendly clauses than do AWAs. Forcing individual agreements on employees will seriously compromise attempts to move to better work/life balances. A recent AIRC finding suggests AWAs and awards include the right of parents to request part time work and extended parental leave, (maybe for parents of children up to six), require employers to give reasons for any refusals and protect workers against penalties for making such requests.

The combination of the IR and Welfare to work changes will seriously undermine any choices for those sole parents, unemployed people with disabilities and others on Newstart as they will be forced to accept any AWA on offer that is legal or risk losing their payments. Women (and men) should be allowed to refuse jobs that impose shifts and /or hours that interfere with their child rearing/care, their health or other responsibilities, and not just at the discretion of the Secretary!

Unfair dismissal changes will put many women workers at risk in workplaces which fail to control harassment and where forms of discrimination occur, but are seen as too hard to prove or pursue. Workplaces will become unfair but not clearly illegal in what they say and do. At the very least, unfair dismissal options should be retained in workplaces of 20 plus workers

Outworkers have been exploited and still often are, but this has been improved by a range of state based awards allowing presumptions of their being protected as employees, not contractors. The new legislation reduces their protection. Many will be defined again as contractors and their pay and conditions will deteriorate. There must be changes that protect these vulnerable groups by adopting the state based systems in the new federal awards. 

The welfare changes have specific injustices that will further reduce fairness and create more poverty and confusion. New sole parents will lose substantial parts of their weekly income, at least $30 per week, once their child turns eight. If they are already working part time, they lose more. The new demands on sole parents will mean they will possibly lose eight weeks’ benefits if deemed to breach prescribed conditions, including refusing  jobs they feel are not suited to their parental responsibilities. Yet the figures on job vacancies suggest that more than a million job seekers will try and compete for 150,000 vacancies.

The government fails to recognise that many of the sole parents and women with disabilities will not be able to find paid work in a tight labour market, given their limited experience and ability to undertake certain hours, and/or types of work. Many of these income recipients have not been able to find work in the past because of personal circumstances exacerbated by poor levels of education, little or no recent workforce experience and lack of any confidence. Health problems, costs of transport, needs of children and many other problems work against their ability to find scarce jobs.

The Government’s assumption that non employment is a supply side problem is obviously absurd in most of these cases. The jobs are not there, even if they were ‘competitive’. So putting them through hoops and cutting income and benefits to make them look for work is unethical and absurd.  
The government should assess the viability of their employment services by keeping all sole parents and those unable to work for 30 hours per week on the higher income levels for the next three years and introduce the proposed services and requirements for moving into employment and measure the results.
They also should exempt sole parents from loss of income for breaches unless deliberate fraud is involved. They must reintroduce access to training and education for welfare recipients as they need access to more than short term training courses to get recognised qualifications. If they do reduce payments, they should shift long term recipients back onto the higher payments if they cannot be found employment within 12 months.

These legislative changes are huge experiments reducing the legal protections and financial resources of workers, under an assumption that there is an equality of power between employer and employees. We suggest the government establish a national Work/Life Balance Commission attached to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to monitor the effects of the new legislation and report to Parliament. This Commission must monitor demographic and other related changes and work with the ABS to develop appropriate measures of the effects of the legislative and program changes on social functioning and well being.

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