Equal pay should be a foundation for building jobs and skills

Boosting skills and productivity in the Australian workforce must begin with gender pay parity and tackling casualisation and the undervaluing of workers in essential industries, argues Barbara Pocock.

Aug 30, 2022, updated Aug 30, 2022
Photo: AAP/Jono Searle

Photo: AAP/Jono Searle

Monday August 29 was not an auspicious day, and I suspect that for most of the delegates at this week’s Jobs + Skills Summit it will have passed unnoticed.

But they should have taken note, because Monday represented a significant message for those delegates. Monday marked Equal Pay Day – the 60 days of additional work that women must work from 1 July to earn the same income as men in the preceding financial year.

Equal Pay Day is obviously not a cause for celebration. Rather, it is an indictment of the inequity that has become institutionalised in our workplaces after decades of discrimination and underpayment of women, often doing exactly the same work as men in the same workplaces.

The gender pay gap will be on the agenda at the Jobs + Skills Summit but this anachronism, and related workplace issues endured by women, is not new. Forty years ago in 1981, as a labour market economist working in Newcastle to improve women’s access to work, I saw first-hand the inequity in pay and conditions, and blatant discrimination borne by women. On this issue, at least for me, the Summit will represent Groundhog Day.

If the Summit is going to defy four decades of inaction and deliver on gender pay equity, rather than make worthy pronouncements that change little, it needs to consider, and act upon, some key issues. And it needs to consider the perspective of the Greens, given that we hold the balance of power in the Senate.

One of the quickest and most effective ways to improve the position of women and narrow the gender pay gap is to increase the minimum wage. There are more women than men on the minimum wage and lifting it disproportionately benefit women. The Government can support an application to the Fair Work Commission to boost minimum wages immediately and peg them to the median wage with positive effects that flow to all low paid workers into the future.

Women are the backbone workers of the care economy, running aged, childcare and disability care. These jobs have been systematically undervalued for decades as the price of their ‘feminisation’. How else can we account for the fact that a car park attendant is paid more than a childcare worker? Aged care workers’ unions are pushing for a 25 per cent pay rise before the Fair Work Commission at present and, if granted, an increase like this must flow across comparable care work.

Given that the care economy is in the main publicly funded, we need to make sure the revaluation of care work is backed by government resources. By scrapping the Stage 3 tax cuts we can fund this – and more – helping households deal with the current cost of living crisis as we narrow the gender gaps at work.

These tax cuts amount to $224 billion over the decade from 2024, delivering a $9,000 break to those on $200,000 or more, and nothing to those on minimum wages. They disproportionally favour the wealthy and deliver twice as much to men as women. They should be overturned, and those resources put to work not for the super wealth but for ordinary people – including those jobseekers trying to live on $46 a day.

As we Greens argued throughout the election campaign and since, it is financially, economically  and morally irresponsible to go ahead with the Stage 3 tax cuts: as many in the Labor Party know, our changed economic circumstances make it time to put the public interest ahead of past promises made in different times.

Such significant government resources would not only help fund pay increases in the care economy along with free childcare, but also enable a long-overdue increase in JobSeeker and help build the affordable social housing we know we need.

Now is the time to ensure that outdated notions of ‘men’s and women’s work’ are overturned so that women get a good share of what will be well paid, career jobs

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It is clear in the current labour market that the enterprise bargaining system – where individual businesses negotiate workplace agreements on wages and conditions with their employees – is broken. It has contributed to an historically high share of GDP flowing to profit and an all-time record low of reward flowing to labour. In many smaller workplaces, where so many women work, there is a significant power imbalance between workers and their employers. Women will always be disadvantaged in such situations.

One way to overcome this power imbalance would be to move to an industry-wide bargaining system in which smaller workplaces are not left behind and the union movement can play a more influential role to protect living standards.

Another initiative that would significantly improve the situation of women, young people and the low paid in the workforce would be to end widespread job insecurity. Casual terms of work should exist only where work is genuinely intermittent, seasonal or unpredictable.

At present around one in three Australian workers are employed as casuals: many work in regular ongoing jobs, but lack access to paid sick and holiday leave. Their casual loading does not adequately compensate them for all they have lost. This is the price they pay for part-time work in many cases. It would be far preferable, including for many women who are juggling work and care for kids or others, if their ongoing jobs were permanent.

A portion of the gender pay gap is explained by women’s small share of highly paid, traditionally male-dominated jobs, for example, in the trades. As the Australian and world economy transitions to a lower carbon future, there will be a huge range of new transitional employment opportunities in occupations like the electrical trades and engineering. Now is the time to ensure that outdated notions of ‘men’s and women’s work’ are overturned so that women get a good share of what will be well paid, career jobs.

Australian experience tells that we can ensure women’s participation in this work through quality pre-vocational and vocational education, the active recruitment of girls and women, and good support in group training and employment environments. Once again, this takes planning and execution: it will not happen without targeted efforts, and the Jobs and Skills Summit should be recommending this architecture and its execution.

As an economist and Professor focussed for the past 30 years on the operation of the labour market, I know that inequality is shaped by the conditions of work. Public policy for the past three decades has been designed to widen inequality at work and it has failed women. It can just as easily be designed to do the opposite: to narrow inequality, assist women and make sure no one is left behind.

Improving minimum wages, revaluing and properly rewarding the care economy, implementing new industry wage bargaining methods, enhancing our employment and training regimes to make sure women get a fair share of future jobs in a low carbon economy – and scrapping the Stage 3 tax cuts in favour of free childcare and cost of living help for workers – are all issues that Greens Leader Adam Bandt and I will be putting on the table at the Jobs + Skills Summit this week.

The Summit is a real test of Anthony Albanese’s avowed new approach to politics. Greens’ support will be critical to the action that arises from the Summit. Voters see that the government of the day doesn’t have a mortgage on good ideas, and want to see it engage constructively with the Greens and others, and make sure as we reform the world of work, that fairness and improvements for women are at the centre – not just of talk – but of action and historic change.

If the Prime Minister and his government want to make a meaningful mark on Australian society, there is no better place to start than improving the status of women in the workforce and beyond.

Barbara Pocock is a Greens Senator for SA, a labour market expert and Emeritus Professor of Business. She is currently chairing the Senate’s first Select Committee inquiry on Work and Care.

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