The Guardian 27 July, 2005

Anti-women agenda bears bitter fruit

Anna Pha

The Howard government’s anti-worker agenda is hitting working women and families hard. For women, low wages are set to go even lower as job insecurity rises and access to quality, affordable childcare is put out of reach.

Working women on average earn $150 a week less than their male counterparts — being paid 63 percent of male earnings.

Women on individual contracts (AWAs) not only earn $5.10 an hour less than men on individual contracts, but around $2.50 an hour ($70) a week less than women on registered collective agreements.

These gaps are set to widen under the new legislation with more workers being forced onto individual contracts. In fact the effect will be catastrophic, especially for women raising a family on their own.

With the planned changes in the way the minimum wage is determined (by the so-called "Fair Pay Commission" of Howard appointees, not the Industrial Relations Commission), the minimum wage will be reduced over time. According to Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews it is $70 a week too high! Howard’s promises that wages will not be reduced are just as credible as his line on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and children overboard.

Sign or else

Unless there is a strong union in place, an individual worker confronted by an employer doesn’t stand a chance: women will be exposed increasingly to sexual and other abuse under the government’s regime which hands all power to the employer.

Even where the union has been successful in negotiating an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA), the employer will still be free to harass and force individual workers to sign an AWA which would then override the EBA.

Many employers are hopping in before the legislation is passed, standing over existing employees to sign away their rights and entitlements in individual contracts or face the sack.

Safety net myth

The government has promised a new "safety net" of four conditions — four weeks annual leave, personal carer’s leave, parental leave, maximum ordinary hours of work — along with the new minimum wage. These minimum conditions are a farce. Already the government has made it clear that four weeks annual leave will mean two or in fact no weeks annual leave.

There is no legal requirement for payment of penalty rates, no limit on the length of the working day or the many other provisions of awards and EBAs. So what does this mean for women, particular?

It is a licence for employers to print money through raising exploitation of workers to new heights.

Job insecurity

Under Andrews "enhancement of employment laws", as he calls them, 99 percent of employers will be free to hire and fire workers as they wish as they are exempted from the unfair dismissal legislation. This affects all workers, but women are far more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment and intimidation than men. The new laws would leave them with virtually no realistic avenue of redress.

Andrews sees this as a means of employers being able to keep "the best" workers — meaning non-union and no absences for any reason, certainly no pregnancy or family leave and of course no workers’ compensation. Menstruation leave will be out, along with any special requirements for women’s health problems. This should be seen in the context of the role women play in the family: they are more likely to be responsible for children and for elderly parents.

Women will be under considerable pressure to front up no matter what, for fear of the sack. Paid maternity leave will be a thing of the past if the Andrews/Howard vision — 93 per cent of existing AWAs do not have paid maternity leave.

Pool of desperate labour

With the government’s plans to force mothers raising children on their own into the workforce as soon as the youngest child reaches school age, thousands of women will lose their sole parent benefit.

The majority will be faced with the choice of taking what is offered by the boss or having no job. A woman who refuses to sign an AWA, no matter how disgusting the terms are, will be denied the dole. ("No AWA , no dole" — see story 10).

The government’s much misnamed "flexibility" and "family friendly" policies will be an absolute nightmare for single mothers and low income families. With the option of no income or a starvation wage, how do you provide for and at the same time be there for and care for a family outside school hours and during school holidays?


The rapid spread of casualisation is already having a huge impact on women. There is no certainty from day to day or one week to the next of employment. Employers exploit large pools of desperate labour, the majority of whom are women, preying on their need for work, and made worse by the difficulties in obtaining unemployment benefits.

At the same time other women are being forced to work extremely long hours, on low wages. Apart from intimidation and fear of losing a job, long hours of overtime (if paid for) are required to bring in enough money to survive.

Howard’s aim is to enlarge this pool of reserve labour and under-employed labour for employers.

Casualisation for women with younger, pre-school age children, also raises similar problems. Apart from erratic and uncertain hours of work and low wages, there is the question of childcare. With the drive towards private for-profit childcare and attacks on community childcare, the cost of care is becoming astronomical — some families pay $100 a day.

With employers legally able to abolish annual leave in return for a few extra dollars (quickly whittled away by inflation or the Fair Pay Commission), school holidays create a new situation, with not enough money to pay for holiday programs and fear of the sack if holidays are taken instead of being paid out. What choice does a single mother have?

Howard’s legislation will make it even more difficult for women to juggle family responsibilities and work.

Howard is not only doing the bidding of his employer patrons, he is also pursuing an extreme right-wing, social agenda with strong punitive elements for behaviour that fits outside his conservative outlook.

His vision is of a traditional Christian family: married mother and father and children. Single mothers in particular do not fit his framework. Access to abortion — the right to choose — has been targeted by Health Minister Tony Abbott.

It has foisted all responsibility on the individual woman to cope in an environment which is about to be made economically untenable (this is the government’s "mutual obligation" imposed on women).

It is adding insult injury: during the past ten years this government has also cut women’s services, such as rape crisis centres, legal centres and emergency accommodation, to the bone.

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