Sharing the caring – we need to spread the load

By Sandra Cook Director of Policy BPW Australia 

Sandy Cook

Both organisations that I belong to (BPW Australia and economicSecurity4Women) are unique in that they represent women who are employers, employees, self-employed and non-employed. Clearly these women have a wide range of views on how best to improve the status of women and secure their equal place in all facets of society; however they all share the ambition to ensure that women have lifelong economic wellbeing. BPW, and eS4W member organisations, attend to the issues that affect women’s ability to achieve this: issues such as pay equity, access to relevant and affordable education and training, access to financial planning and superannuation, access to quality childcare that is both available and affordable, carer needs, and retirement income equity. Such issues affect women across the full spectrum but are magnified when they are compounded by multiple disadvantage.

We see an important role for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and its continued focus on gender reporting requirements; we expect that they will provide clarity for employers and will contribute to the workplace changes needed for more women – and men – to be able to combine paid work and unpaid care responsibilities. We believe that apart from outright discrimination against women in the workplace, it is the unpaid care responsibilities that have the greatest impact on the number of hours women are able to work. It presents barriers for entry and participation in the workforce and is one of the greatest challenges to be faced over the coming decades.

The recent report funded by eS4W ‘Counting on Care work in Australia’ (2012) showed that women annually contribute 60% of the 21.4 billion hours of unpaid care work ( Counting on Care Work in Australia.pdf ). Many women have to take insecure and casual work in order to juggle earning an income with unpaid care responsibilities. These care responsibilities include care for babies and children, of course; they include in particular care for children before and after school and during school holidays. They also include care for parents, spouses other family members and close friends. We are ask that government consider the gender implications of insecure employment in relation to workplace gender equality objectives, paying particular attention to caring as it impacts on women as primary paid and unpaid care workers. Similarly a gender lens must be considered when looking at relevant public policies including education and income support.

Collaboration on these issues brings thoughtful and thorough responses. eS4W recently facilitated BPW (Business and Professional Women) South Australia to join with Working Women Centre SA to examine these issues more directly. Current labour laws were discussed such as National Employment Standards that do not cover causal workers, of whom 55% are women. Nor do many of the modern awards in female industries adequately protect workers on part-time contracts, who are overwhelmingly women.

The breadth of casualised work across many sectors is alarming and was cited in our submission BPW Senate Inquiry in to the Role of Technical and Further Education, a sector that relies increasingly on casualised staff as does the Higher Education sector. TAFE represents the cheapest, easiest educational opportunity for many women, including recently arrived women immigrants to this country and there needs to be continued support for this process to ensure integration of women and their families into Australian society. Their first understanding of our country, culture and language is through TAFE English classes and then through Cert III skills training for such jobs as aged care, child care and hospitality. These women are mostly employed in such low skilled jobs but it provides them with friends outside their husband’s home and opportunity for some. BPW Australia continues to lobby against systems that see such women often funnelled in low paying, low skilled employment but sees the services of the TAFE system as an essential first rung to employment and financial independence.

Childcare remains one of the intransient barriers to workforce participation. We know that quality and availability are key factors, but affordability is the biggest issue. Members including BPW Australia and NFAW have asked that the Productivity Commission be tasked to examine both the supply of quality, affordable child care, as well the effect of the taxation and welfare transfer systems interacting with the cost of child care Productivity Commission request This would have the effect of improving productivity, as well as taking account of appropriate service structure for child development. We know that for many women the decision about whether to work part -time, or to work at all is dependent on how much net return they receive after factoring in possible loss of Family Tax Benefit Part B, plus the net cost of child care and other expenses of returning to work. We also know that Australian women have the highest rate of part-time work of all OECD countries. Balancing work and family, and the lack of good quality Out of School Hours Care play a part in decisions about work.

Long periods out of the workforce have severe implications for long term financial security and we understand the aim of the Government to ensure single parents are supported to find and start work once their children are at primary school. We are however concerned about the potential barriers to this transition especially into decent work (fair pay, secure hours) and the impact on their economic wellbeing if and when some families have to survive on the NewStart Allowance. Without skills and access to formal and informal childcare it will be extremely difficult for many women (and men) to get family friendly work arrangements that better balance work and care responsibilities and that pay enough to cover the costs of raising a family in a single income household. And those costs will have to include out of school hours care and care to cover illness and other interruptions to school attendance. Many single parents will have to find work in an increasingly casualised workplace and will have little choice on what to accept. This may well add even more insecurity to already precarious circumstances.

To be fair to parents and their children, this move should also be accompanied with gender inclusive policy action to target women’s skills development, particularly in the emergent ‘green economy’, mining and construction industries that traditionally have better pay and conditions. It should also offer a significant increase in the JET childcare and training assistance. eS4W and WAVE is calling for national Vocational Education and Training (VET) policies that focus on gender equity and that respond to the complexity and challenges associated with gender and when gender intersects with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background, with disabilities, with culturally and or linguistically diverse backgrounds, with low socio economic backgrounds and with geographical disadvantage. We also recommend establishing and resourcing pre-vocational programs for women returning to work after raising children, caring or moving from income support.

With the Small and Medium Business sector being Australia’s largest non-government employer, we look forward to working with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to develop the tools identified in our research Attitudes to gender equity in small firms that will help smaller employers have gender equitable workplaces; tools that focus on recruitment and selection processes, job analysis and job descriptions, developing performance management systems and reward systems and pay equity. This will ensure the sector attracts and retains quality staff in a competitive labour environment.

Paid Parental Leave
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