Budget 2018/19 - Women in the workforce increasingly isolated & exploited

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Earlier this week the National Foundation for Australian Women (@NFAWomen) released their annual Gender Lens on the Budget document. This comprehensive and highly collaborate effort includes analyses of how the Federal budget falls for women, identifying the winners and losers for a range of policy positions including social services, education and training, employment, health, and elimination of violence against women. It also provides an overview of how the Budget will shape the lives of women, including young women, older women, Indigenous women, migrant and refugee women, and women with disabilities. Today's post reproduces the analysis authored by Kathy MacDermott, member of the NFAW Social Policy Committee, on budgetary impacts of women's workforce participation. Her analysis indicates that women are increasingly susceptible to precarious employment while government protections and resources are eroded, leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation. On the plus side, funding continues for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and the Fair Work Ombudsman. The Federal Budget papers can be accessed here.

Workforce programs - how does the budget stack up for women?

Winners

While there are no gains here, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and Fair Work Ombudsman retain current staffing levels.

Losers

Victims of workplace exploitation, including wage theft. Budget funding increases target union corruption rather than employer corruption.

The Budget

Funding for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency remains virtually unchanged, and staffing levels are not affected (Prime Minister and Cabinet PBS, WGEA, Table 2.1.1, 346)

Funding for the Working Women’s Centres in SA and the NT remains tied to competitive tender by the Fair Work Ombudsman. The Queensland Working Women’s Centre lost funding through the same process.  Some of its functions have ceased and others are being handled elsewhere—including by interstate providers that do not specialise in women’s services.

Staffing levels for the education services and compliance activities of the Fair Work Ombudsman remain unchanged (Jobs and Small Business PBS, Fair Work Ombudsman and the Registered Organisations Commission, Table 2.1.1). Funding for the Registered Organisation Commission is to increase by $8.1m (Budget Paper 2, Part 2); its staffing is to be increased by nearly 50% to 28 (Jobs and Small Business Portfolio Budget Statement, Fair Work Ombudsman and the Registered Organisations Commission, Table 2.2.1).

Gender implications

Workforce support for vulnerable women

There are two overlapping issues here:

  1. The need to address exploitation of vulnerable employees by unscrupulous employers, often in industries and sectors where women predominate, and
  2. The progressive loss of advisory and support services tailored to help vulnerable women with work-related matters.

There is increasing evidence of a widespread black economy for substandard jobs. Most unscrupulous employers rely on employees’ ignorance of entitlements, or their fear of losing employment. A subset of these employers may require workers to enter into sham contracting arrangements, or intentionally transfer assets from an indebted company to a new company to avoid paying employee entitlements (‘phoenixing’), or use arm’s length employment (contractors or franchisor/franchisee arrangements) to facilitate underpaying wages, or paying below award rates, often for dangerously long hours.

Jobs available to women are increasingly precarious, leaving them highly susceptible to exploitation. This is particularly true for women from CALD backgrounds.  Photo credit Pexels .

Jobs available to women are increasingly precarious, leaving them highly susceptible to exploitation. This is particularly true for women from CALD backgrounds. Photo credit Pexels.

Women from CALD backgrounds are over-represented in industries or subsectors identified by the Fair Work Ombudsman as having high levels of non-compliance with basic workplace standards, namely hospitality, retail, cleaning, security and trolley collecting (Fair Work Ombudsman, Corporate Plan 2016-17).

Women are also structurally more likely to be vulnerable at work because they carry the main burden of family responsibilities. Current data shows that new mothers go from spending a weekly average of 2 hours caring for others to spending 51 hours. At the same time, they increase the time they spend on housework from a weekly average of 16 hours to 25 hours. The extra time spent looking after children and doing housework comes as women reduce their time in paid work, which declines from a weekly average of 33 hours pre-motherhood to 9 hours after the birth (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2016).

Family responsibilities mean that women are likely to be restricted in the hours and location of their employment, and to pay for their flexibility with loss of job security and low wages. This disadvantage is greatly exacerbated for single parents and victims of domestic violence, whose choices are narrower and whose responsibilities are broader.

Working Women’s Centres have in the past specialised in issues affecting women with neither the means nor the capacity to access assistance elsewhere, particularly women who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or those from a culturally or linguistically diverse background, or women who have disabilities or live in regional and remote areas, or women who have family responsibilities or are victims of family violence. The Centres offered those women advice and assistance in an environment that was safe and accessible.

The Government has responded to the increasing evidence of exploitation and its intersection with women’s workforce vulnerability by cutting advice and assistance to women workers.

  • While once there were five Working Women’s Centres (in NSW, SA, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory), now there are only two. Where once there was direct funding for WWCs, the remaining Centres are obliged to compete for fixed term grants.
  • The Fair Work Ombudsman, which does not have the expertise to provide such tailored services, and as a government agency is not welcoming to many vulnerable workers, has in any case reduced funding for program expenses in the next two financil years (Department of Jobs and Small Business,2018 Portfolio Budget Statement, Fair Work Ombudsman and Registered Organisations Commission, Table 2.1.1)
  • Only the Registered Organisations Commission has received additional funding in the 2018 Budget, to deal with issues of ‘union governance and corruption’. 

NFAW is concerned to witness the priorities manifest in these funding decisions. Granted, the Registered Organisations Commission’s staffing increase comes off a narrower base; but its responsibilities are also narrower.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency

NFAW regards the work of  the Workplace Gender Equality Agency - or WGEA - as critically important in addressing women’s structural disadvantage in the workforce. We welcome its continued funding. It is an essential resource for employers—and as the Government has acknowledged, it also has an essential role to play in implementing its Strategy for Women’s Economic Security (Implementation Plan, 14, 22). 

NFAW has also argued that it has a role to play in developing partnerships between educational institutions and industry bodies to establish and foster career pathways for women across a range of non-traditional sectors, including STEM industries (see section 4.3 — STEM Initiatives).

However, the Agency is not a resource for employees in difficulty. Its work is ‘the provision of advice and assistance to employers and the assessment and measurement of workplace gender data.’

The Human Rights Commission does handle complaints from employees, but in 2017 the threshold of what constitutes a valid complaint of unlawful discrimination was raised. This, and the confidential nature of its conciliated outcomes, makes its role in direct provision of advice and assistance to women difficult to assess.

The provision of working advice and assistance to employees was the remit of the Working Women’s Centres. 

Recommendations

  •  NFAW recommends that the Government provide additional funding to the Fair Work Ombudsmen to allow it to address high levels of non-compliance with basic workplace standards, noting with the FWO that ‘these behaviours create barriers to workforce participation, weaken the integrity of the workplace relations system, distort the labour market and undermine the principles of fair competition’ (FWO, Corporate Plan 2017-18). 
    • NFAW strongly urges the Government to restore the funding of the five Working Women’s Centres in its forthcoming September Statement on Women’s Economic Security.

  This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.