Progressive PSA
Progressive PSA brings together rank and file trade union activists in the Public Service Association of New South Wales and the CPSU (SPSF Branch). We work for
  • improved and more equitable pay
  • greater job security
  • a democratic and strong union
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The following document has been prepared by the ACTU Officers and circulated to delegates to the ACTU Congress. It is reproduced here to encourage debate within the labour movement.


1     Introduction

1.1     Women are crucial to the success of the efforts of Australian unions' recruitment and organising strategies.

1.2     In adopting unions@work unions have committed themselves to focussing on new, traditionally ununionised areas of the workforce, many of which are in the service sector and employ a high proportion of women.

1.3     In organising amongst women it is important to recognise the need to integrate workplace issues with the totality of women's lives, particularly through policies linking work and family.

1.4     The contemporary labour market is characterised by high levels of female employment, much of which is engaged on a part-time, casual or contract basis.

2     Women in the Workforce

2.1     Women now make up 40 per cent of the Australian workforce, with 44 per cent of these employed part-time and 32 per cent employed as casuals. Women make up 72 per cent of all part-time workers and 62 per cent of casual workers. We cannot talk about part-time or casual work without talking about women.

2.2     Women's employment is concentrated in a few industries.

2.3     Eighteen per cent of female workers are employed in the retail trade, making up 51 per cent of the total retail workforce.

2.4     Seventeen per cent of women are employed in health and community services, making up 77 per cent of the total workforce in health and community services.

2.5     Eleven per cent of women are employed in education, making up 68 per cent of the total education workforce.

2.6     Six per cent of women are employed in the hospitality industry, where they make up 56 per cent of the total workforce.

2.7     Six per cent of women work in manufacturing, where they make up 26 per cent of the total manufacturing workforce.

2.8     Within these and other industries, women are concentrated in a narrow range of occupations: 31 per cent of women are employed as clerical, sales and service workers.

3     Women's pay and conditions

3.1     Equal pay is far from a reality in Australia, where women earn two thirds of male earnings.

3.2     Even when part-timers are excluded, full-time female workers earn 80 per cent of male earnings. Women earn 89 per cent of non-managerial male full-time earnings and 91 per cent of base award or certified agreement wage rates.

3.3     In the industry sectors where they predominate, women earn overall less than men because they tend to be clustered in the lowest classifications; for example, women earn 93 per cent of the male base rate in retail, 78 per cent in health and community services, 88 per cent in education and 89 per cent in hospitality.

Women and bargaining

3.4     The industries in which women are concentrated are amongst those less likely to be covered by certified agreements. Half of all workers in retail, health and community services and hospitality are dependent on awards, compared to a third of all workers in the private sector. This can be compared to manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, where only 13 per cent of workers are reliant on awards.

3.5     There is evidence that women are also disadvantaged under individual agreements Although there is no conclusive evidence about the effect of AWAs on women, the fact that women earn only 43 per cent of the over-award payments made to men is an indication that women do less well in a system of individual bargaining.

3.6     As at 31 March 2000 almost 100,000 AWAs have been approved, of which      43 per cent were made with women.

3.7     Over-award payments are more common in workplaces with a      predominance of male workers, and even in these workplaces only 36 per cent of women received payments in 1995 compared to 64 per cent of men.

3.8     Evidence from New Zealand and Western Australia confirms that the gap between male and female wages is likely to increase in systems which make significant use of individual contracts.

3.9     The Government's proposed "second wave" of industrial relations legislation would particularly affect women through further restrictions on the Commission's discretion and limitations on the content of awards. The success of the 1999 campaign against the Bill, which led to it not being proceeded with in the Senate, was partly due to the efforts of women's and community organisations which, together with unions, focussed on the effect the proposals would have on women.

Working hours

3.10     Women are also disadvantaged in the bargaining process in that, where they are covered by certified agreements, these are more likely to include provisions for greater "flexibility" in hours of work which have the effect of reducing penalty rates and ensuring greater employer control over hours of work.

3.11     The New Zealand experience shows how women can be particularly vulnerable; women are more likely than men to be employed on contracts with ordinary hours extending over the full week, with 62 per cent of women on contracts without penalty rates compared to 43 per cent of men. No penalties are paid in the hospitality industry while 86 per cent of retail workers do not receive penalty rates - both industries where women predominate.

3.12     The result can be too little or too much work, combined with greater unpredictability of hours.

3.13     Excessive working hours, most of it unpaid, is emerging as a critical issue, particularly in office environments where women are concentrated. Apart from the effects on excessive and unpredictable hours of work on family life, increased stress and other health problems are becoming endemic.

Education and training

3.14     Although the proportion of women involved in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system, including apprenticeships and traineeships, has increased significantly in the past decade, this growth has tended to cluster at the lower level VET courses and generally reflects the sex segmentation of the labour market.

3.15     For women to achieve equal participation in education and training and thereby enhance their access to employment equity, a number of barriers need to be addressed, including:

i)     lack of access to training for part-time and casual employees;

ii)     availability of apprenticeship and traineeship places for adult women, including on a part-time basis;

iii)     availability of pre-apprenticeship and pre-vocational TAFE courses for unemployed women and girls;

iv)     gender appropriate training for women;

v)     insufficient systems for recognition of prior learning in some predominantly female industries;

vi)     inadequate affirmative action programs to encourage access to education and training for non-traditional occupations, particularly in rural and remote areas and for migrant and Indigenous women;

vii)     lack of childcare facilities for VET students.

4     Work and Family

4.1     In spite of significant changes to women's role in the workforce and in society generally, they still carry the main responsibility for young children and, increasingly, for aged parents.

4.2     Over one million female workers have children under the age of 15, and 169,500 of these are sole parents. The ability to combine paid work with family responsibilities is crucial for these women, as well as for many men.

4.3     An ACTU survey last year found that 22 per cent of respondents said that they did not have time to spend on children's school or sports activities. Workers overwhelmingly said that they wanted more control over their hours of work and a better balance between work and family.

4.4     The Government argues strenuously that increased flexibility in agreements, such as allowing for working hours to be averaged over an extended period, equates to the achievement of family friendly provisions. The reality, however, is that provisions such as these allow employers to meet sudden changes in work demands by changing employees' hours of work on a daily or weekly basis, the very opposite of the consistent and certain hours which are required by workers with family responsibilities.

4.5     The recent HREOC report Pregnant and Productive highlighted the failure of many employers to meet the needs of workers with family responsibilities, such as providing leave for pregnant women to attend regular medical appointments, and for their partners to attend the more significant appointments and the birth itself. Employers who are not prepared to be flexible in relation to these relatively minor needs, are hardly likely to accommodate employees' greater needs arising after the birth of the child, such as paid maternity leave and access to comprehensive family leave. Only 15 per cent of private employers with 100 or more employees provide paid maternity leave.


4.6     Quality, available and affordable childcare is crucial to the ability of workers to combine paid work with family responsibilities, yet both have declined dramatically since the election of the Howard Government in 1996. Reduced funding for child care assistance, together with removal of the operational subsidy to community-based centres has pushed the price of childcare well beyond the means of the average family.

4.7     There is evidence that women have been forced to cease paid work, or cut back on their working hours, because of the increased cost of childcare.

4.8     A significant number of centres have closed, while others, in order to bring their services within the financial reach of families, have been forced to reduce staff/child ratios, cut back on qualified staff and decrease quality generally. Greater use of informal services has also been reported, putting strain on grandparents and other relatives, or exposing children to risks associated with "backyard" operators.

4.9     Cuts to funding have severely affected childcare workers, who are generally unable to bargain for increased wages and conditions given that funding would not cover the cost of any agreement reached. The stresses on the operation of centres has led to pressure on staff to provide the same services with fewer and less qualified staff, often meaning longer hours without any financial compensation.

5     Women and Unions

5.1     Twenty three per cent of female workers are union members, compared to 28 per cent of men. While male membership declined by 12.9 per cent between August 1997 and 1999, female membership declined by 8.2 per cent; in other words, the rate of decline amongst women in lower than that of men. Consequently, in August 1999 women made up 41.2 per cent of union members, up from 40 per cent in 1997.

5.2     Union membership is linked to higher wages and greater access to key entitlements for women. Full-time female union members earn on average seven per cent per week more than their non-union counterparts, while the weekly differential between union and non-union part-timers is a massive 34 per cent.

5.3     Union agreements are less likely than non-union agreements to contain the kind of flexible hours provisions which disadvantage women.

Women's participation in unions

5.4     A 1998 national survey of unions found that women were under-represented at almost all levels of union structures, and that this was greatest in key elected positions, although significant gains had been made in some unions, particularly large unions in the public sector.

5.5     Women were under-represented on 27 of 30 union federal executives, and on 21 of 22 federal union councils, with a gender gap of 11 per cent.

5.6     The survey also found that affirmative action strategies, such as the ACTU's rules for Executive and Council representation, are effective in ensuring proportional representation for women.

6     Women and the International Economy

6.1     Women in the poorer countries of the world have been amongst those hardest hit by the economics of globalisation.

6.2     The results of insensitive policies promoted and enforced by international agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank worsen, rather than ameliorate, the situation of the 0.9 billion women who make up more than two thirds of the world's people living in poverty.

6.3     In countries without even a minimal social security safety net, the burden of feeding and caring for families fails largely on women.

6.4     Cuts in public expenditure means failing employment, reduction in food subsidies and cuts to services such as health and education.

6.5     Free trade means working conditions akin to slavery for women in export processing zones, where basic human and labour rights are ignored in the interests of bringing manufactured goods to the developed world.

6.6     An international movement, in which unions are playing a leading role, is campaigning for a more people-centred, equitable, rights-based global economy.

Copyright notice: this document is reproduced here to enable debate within the labour movement without permission from the copyright owner for purposes of criticism, comment, scholarship and research under the "fair use" provisions of the Federal copyright laws and it may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner, except for "fair use."

External link: ACTU Home Page

Cut and Dried Design   June 2000