Relaxed and comfortable?

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At the last federal election the Howard Government took pride in making Australian voters feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’. John Howard asked Australian voters to trust him. A little over a year later we find that the government has, with obscene haste, pushed through industrial relations and welfare laws which were not announced prior to the 2004 election and which will radically alter the working lives of many Australian workers and their families. All workers have good reason to be worried and concerned, not relaxed and comfortable.

The WorkChoices legislation and the Welfare to Work legislation together threaten the wages, conditions and welfare of many women. WorkChoices is a wholesale assault on the working conditions of Australians. It single-handily removes rights and entitlements that have been hard fought for by workers, trade unions and women’s organisations. It effectively takes everything, bar a few bare minimums, and says to workers, ‘see if you can bargain anything back’. It changes the mechanism for setting minimum wages and removes trade union rights to effectively represent their members. It removes many achievements in equal pay and family friendly practices and unfair dismissal protection for most workers. Welfare to Work legislation puts many jobless sole parents and people with disabilities onto lower payments and many will lose payments entirely for eight weeks if they refuse a minimum wage job, or have to leave a job.

What does this mean for women and their families?

Women are 45 per cent of the Australian labour force. They are heavily concentrated in retail trade, health and community services, education, hospitality, government and personal service. They represent 60 per cent of casual workers and 71 per cent of part-time workers. They also dominate the low pay sector, more so than young workers. Women who are low-wage workers are paid less than their male counterparts despite the fact that the majority have dependent children and many are sole parents

Women spend time out of the labour force for child bearing and caring responsibilities, they also often care for family members with disabilities and older family members and are more likely to be sole parents. Consequently, they are more reliant on pensions and allowances than men, have less superannuation and are more likely to live in poverty in their older age.

The Howard Government in WorkChoices has moved responsibility for setting the Minimum Wage from the independent Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) to the Fair Pay Commission and changed the mechanism for determining it. The new body has the objective of ‘promoting economic prosperity and job creation,’ not a fair and equitable wage system. The frequency of adjustment to the minimum wage by the new body is unclear and is subject to ministerial intervention. The government has consistently argued against fair wage increases in the Safety Net Cases taken by the ACTU.

All this does not bode well for women, who are more reliant on minimum and award wages than men. WorkChoices will remove any advances in equal remuneration achieved in the State jurisdiction. The Award Rationalisation process will remove and collapse many skills based classification structures and will result in awards containing just minimum rates.

Thanks to Bill Leak

WorkChoices will also force many women workers to accept individual contracts in the form of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) and deny them effective representation by trade unions. For many women it will not be ‘take it or leave it'; it will be ‘take it or lose your benefits’. Restrictions on rights to access workplaces will threaten the health and safety of many women workers, particularly outworkers. The new minimum standards for family leave are below that already set down in awards and agreements. It is difficult to imagine that women will now be able to bargain work and family entitlements into individual contracts when the employer associations and the Federal Government have consistently argued against improvements in these conditions in cases before the AIRC.

Welfare to Work legislation puts some sole parents and people with disabilities on lower payments. Some sole parents with school age children will have their weekly benefits cut. Sole parents on unemployment benefits could lose their payments if they refuse to take a minimum wage job.

Taken together these changes will affect the whole of the workforce in a race to the bottom. The unemployed and many sole parents will have no choice but to accept a job with bare minimum standards and a declining minimum wage. Sole parents and people with disabilities are disadvantaged in finding work. Childcare costs, the need for family friendly hours and special health considerations for workers with disabilities all disadvantage the most vulnerable of workers. Putting these workers on lower payments will not provide them with the resources to improve their skills and find decent and secure work.

If the government were committed to a fair industrial relations and welfare system and to encouraging people to work they need to revise their policies. The following recommendations ought to be considered:

Payments should not be cut to the unemployed, sole parents or workers with disabilities. Cutting payments will not make it easier for people to find work.

Punitive conditions that remove benefits for refusing to take a job and appeal processes need to be revised. This needs to include such considerations as costs of traveling to work, child care costs, jobs that interfere with caring responsibilities.

A fair minimum wage needs to be protected by legislating that the Federal Minimum Hourly Wage not fall below sixty-five per cent of average hourly rate. Legislation must also provide that the minimum wage rate be adjusted annually and that hearings be conducted in an open forum with submissions presented from interested parties.

The no-disadvantage test should be retained so that individual contracts cannot undermine awards and union negotiated collective agreements.

To ensure that workers’ pay improves and they are not relegated to minimum rates, the award rationalisation process must protect and retain skill classification structures.

More places, greater funding and access for welfare recipients and minimum wage workers to training and education courses should be provided.

A commission or taskforce should be established to inquire into discrimination and inequality in the workforce. The inquiry or commission must address the fact that a large proportion of women’s work is underpaid and undervalued by establishing guidelines that effectively remunerate women for their work and promote family friendly policies.

Paid and unpaid carers’ leave, family leave and sick leave entitlements should be increased including easing the requirement for the provision of medical certificates for workers with special circumstances such as workers with caring responsibilities, illnesses or disabilities.

Funding for child care places for jobless, sole parents and minimum wage workers should be increased.

Access to unfair dismissal procedures for all workers should be reinstated.

Women workers have a lot to lose. We are heavily reliant on a fair and just welfare and industrial relations regulatory system. Changes must be made. I certainly don’t feel relaxed and comfortable!

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