Single mothers and the abattoir: A short review of JobActive positions in Shepparton


Over the past twelve months we have featured a number of blogs from Good Shepherd researcher Juanita McLaren (@defrostedlady) regarding the poor design and outcomes of the Federal Welfare to Work policy. With an aging population, much of Australia’s welfare policy is aimed at replacing this demographic in the workforce. This is addressed largely by targeting groups with lower employment numbers, particularly single parents, 85% of whom are female. In this blog, Juanita provides a snapshot of what JobActive employment opportunities are currently available in Shepparton and its surrounds, and assesses their suitability for single mothers. 

Shepparton & single parents – a short history

Shepparton has a population that just tips over 50,000.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women make up about 3.6% of the female population, one of the highest ratios in Victoria. I point this out as 18 months ago the Department of Human Services chose Shepparton as one of ten trial areas for ParentsNext, a program that links young families with children as young as six months old with a service provider to start the process of preparing for work. The program is intended to provide early intervention for intergenerational welfare dependency.

The connection, or assumption, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders experience intergenerational poverty due to an unwillingness to work rather than due to inherited social and financial deficit from generations of their people working for free, I mean, for the dole.

According to a recent Jobs Australia report on Closing the Gap 2017 for Indigenous employment disadvantage, the Indigenous employment rate fell from 53.8% in 2008 to 48.4% in 2014-15, with the gap increasing from 21.2 percentage points to 24.2 percentage points over the same period. The overall labour market has softened, especially for those with Year 10 or below education.  As nearly half of all Indigenous men aged 15-64 have Year 10 or below, their employment rate fell sharply.  For Indigenous women, however, there was no significant change in the employment rate (45.6% - 45.3%).  Despite this, women are still being targeted as a group that needs to be mandatorily ushered back into the workforce.

When I was being raised in Shepparton in the 70’s by my then single mother who had not completed her HSC, her employment options led pretty much to working on the cannery line at SPC, a job that saw my brother and I being dropped off at a babysitter’s at 5 am each morning before school, and part-time administrative work at a trucking company on the road to Dookie. Back then it wasn’t what you knew, it was who you knew, but the stigma of being a single mother was pervasive, so discrimination was ever-present socially and in the workplace.

The positions advertised through Job Active in Shepparton are unconventional for women, due to physical requirements and hours that are not conducive to parenting.  Photo credit Mamamia.

The positions advertised through Job Active in Shepparton are unconventional for women, due to physical requirements and hours that are not conducive to parenting. Photo credit Mamamia.

Job prospects for single mothers

In light of the research I’ve been doing on Welfare to Work Policy, I found myself wondering what the job opportunities are like for single mothers in Shepparton nearly 40 years on, with so many incentives offered to private companies to employ this group.  When my mum was job seeking in the 70’s, it was run by the Department of Employment and all the jobs would just get pinned on a board in the waiting area of what would now be a Centrelink office.

With all the new initiatives to assist with connecting single mothers back to the workforce, I did a very broad search on the JobActive website to see what jobs are out there with the following filters:

1.    VIC – Regional - Shepparton and Goulburn Valley

2.    Permanent positions (through the advanced search function)

3.    Any industry


Figure 1: screenshot of the search done on the Jobactive site with resultant number of jobs according to filters

Figure 1: screenshot of the search done on the Jobactive site with resultant number of jobs according to filters

My search yielded the following results: 226 Jobs, 314 Positions (meaning that for some roles employers were looking for multiple employees). Doesn’t sound too bad. Only 48 out of the 314 positions advertised were being handled directly through the JobActive employment service provider (15.2%), while the rest of the positions advertised were either ‘external jobs’ which were being advertised and handled by other recruitment agencies, or public employers who were handling the advertising and recruitment of staff directly. External jobs and public employers often use the JobActive page as another advertising route.

Of the 48 positions available through the JobActive employment service providers, only 6 separate employers were actually recruiting, with one looking for as many as 20 casual employees. Statistically speaking, only 3% of the total number of employers listed in this job search were being directly handled by the JobActive employment service providers.

Despite my advanced search filter of ‘permanent positions’ only 13 of the 48 JobActive positions that came up in the Shepparton and Goulburn Valley region were permanent full time (26%), the rest were temporary and/or part-time casual (which, as an aside, negatively impacts on women’s health).  To be thorough, I went back and redid the search without the ‘permanent’ filter; the same jobs came up.

Here is the list of Job Active Employment Service Provider roles available to me today if I was looking for somewhat permanent work to establish a long-term career pathway and financial security:

  • 4 x Civil Road Plant Operators (casual) - Road maintenance, Manual Laboring, truck driving, skid steer operation, traffic management
  •  20 x Process Workers in an Abattoir (casual) - responsible for slaughtering livestock
  •  10 x Labourers in an Abattoir (casual) - boning
  • 12 x Aluminium Welders (full time)
  •  1 x Steel Fabricator (full time)
  •  1 x Qualified Pastry Chef (casual)

When we break these industries down, they are nearly all traditionally male-dominated roles, due to the physical labour and unconventional working hours required for shift work. 

According to the Australian Government’s Gender Composition April 2016 Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Manual Laboring/road maintenance roles, which come under the header of the construction industry, employ 11.7% women, 88.3% men.  In the same report, the metal industry (manufacturing) employs 27.3% women, 72.7% men.  The most recent figures from the Australian Meat Industry (2006) stated that women accounted for 23% of employment in meat processing and meat wholesaling. 

Figure 2: The description offered at the bottom of the Abattoir roles (Process Workers and Labourers) on the Job Active website gives tips and statistics on what the sector is like across Australia.

Figure 2: The description offered at the bottom of the Abattoir roles (Process Workers and Labourers) on the Job Active website gives tips and statistics on what the sector is like across Australia.

I was unable to find statistics on gender composition in the world of pastry chefs, however I did find a handful of articles on the lack of women in the field. One of Australia’s most prominent head chefs, Peter Gilmore, said in a recent article on the subject of the lack of female chefs, "I think that in general, a head chef role usually doesn’t happen until you are in your mid-30s. At the top level of our industry, these hours are very difficult and anti-social... In my opinion, a lot of women tend to leave the industry around this time to have a family."

What’s a single mother to do?

If you are a single mother and required to apply for between 6 and 12 jobs per fortnight in order to receive your welfare payment, depending on the discretion of your Job Network service provider (which, although below the poverty line, is usually the only thing standing between single mothers and homelessness), it looks like slim pickings in Shepparton. Why are other recruitment agencies advertising through the Job Network Service provider but not allowing the Job Network Service providers to recruit on their behalf? And are the DHHS or Job Network service providers doing any advocacy work to make these male-dominated industries more supportive of single mothers and primary carers – for example, ensuring work hours that allow for looking after children? Or alternatively, are they trying to connect with employers who provide more of a variety of roles beyond steel work, road maintenance and animal slaughter, roles that as well as being able to offer flexibility, can also offer long-term financial viability and a career pathway? It looks suspiciously as though the government has given no thought to the kinds of roles that single mothers are able to take on, or would want to take on with a view to long-term security. Rather, they are determined to get as many single mothers off of the welfare books as possible. Never mind that this is a violation of human rights.

It seems things haven’t changed much since my mother was looking for work; one could even argue they’ve gotten worse. – Despite the amount of money spent on welfare to work programs such as Job Active, the pressure to contribute to society as a paid employee is greater in our neoliberal society, yet the jobs on offer are limited to male-dominated industries that assume a nuclear family model when it comes to caring for children. The vast majority of single mothers are on welfare for a limited amount of time. With the right supports, they can prepare for and then enter into employment that allows them to look after their children and build a financially secure future. However, the current jobs on offer in the Shepparton area don’t seem to fit the bill. Until the government listens to the needs of single mothers and shapes supports around reality, the Welfare to Work scheme will continue to marginalise and vilify single mothers, pushing them into poverty and homelessness.

Juanita is examining single parents’ experiences of the welfare to work system. If you would like to participate, there are more details available here.

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.