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Thursday, 25 November 1999
Page: 10770

Senator GIBBS (9:04 PM) —Many of the changes proposed in the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 1999 are concerning and disappointing. These changes are concerning and disappointing because they are likely to wind back some of the tremendous gains made by women in the work force in the past few decades. The bill is likely to diminish some of those gains by weakening the Affirmative Action Agency. If implemented, these changes would be another nail in the coffin for female workers in Australia—another nail in the coffin hammered in by a workplace relations minister who seems intent on destroying the good work done by and for women in recent decades.

The past 20 years have produced hard fought gains and better conditions for women in the work force. A substantial number of these gains happened under the previous Labor government. They happened because the ALP had a commitment to working with women, working with business and working with unions. The ALP had a commitment to sitting down with these groups and finding ways of helping women achieve some sort of equality in the work force. The ALP did that in a conciliatory manner that could work in the best interests of all parties involved. That commitment was made reality in 1986 with the establishment of the Affirmative Action Agency.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence of a similar commitment from the current government. As I mentioned, many of those achievements came about following the establishment of the Affirmative Action Agency under the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986. The Affirmative Action Agency is responsible for overseeing the development of affirmative action programs by businesses with more than 100 employees. The current legislation has been extremely successful in helping build fairer workplaces. Since 1986, the number of women in the workplace has increased signifi cantly, coinciding with a rise in the number of organisations that have an equal opportunity policy in place. But there is still a long way to go.

The affirmative action programs facilitated by the agency are designed to remove discriminatory employment barriers and take action to promote equal opportunity for women in the workplace. Many of these programs are good and, if history is anything to go by, many of them work. Many of these programs have been responsible for significant achievements in various workplaces around Australia. The Affirmative Action Agency has, for more than 10 years, been helping, guiding, goading and shaming companies into providing programs to help women achieve a better existence in the workplace. My concern is that the changes proposed in this bill would erode some of the authority of the Affirmative Action Agency and, in eroding the authority and operations of that agency, of even greater concern is that many of the achievements made by women in recent years might be wiped away.

To ground this debate, we need to put to the forefront the reality that faces working women today. Despite the progressive and long overdue results achieved under the existing legislation, there is still a long way to go. Indeed, my biggest concern with the proposed changes to the legislation is the possibility of the hard won changes being eroded. Only 11 per cent of senior management positions in this country are held by women, 73 per cent of part-time jobs in Australia are held by women and women earn only 84 per cent of what men earn, on a comparable weekly earnings basis. There are also concerning signs that women are leaving the work force. Since the Howard government came to power, the proportion of women participating in the work force has been stagnant at 54 per cent.

Those few facts and figures, I think, indicate the continuing need for the agency's existence in its current form. As it currently stands, large employers must produce an affirmative action program and report to the Director of the Affirmative Action Agency, who then reports to the government. For the past five years employers have been rated on a scale of 1 to 5. That system is set to be abolished and replaced with a pass/fail system. This change will work as a disincentive for continuous improvements by business—but I will speak further on that later.

If an employer fails to submit a report or provide evidence of a program, they are named in parliament through the agency's annual report—with 55 such organisations being named last month. In being named, they may also face certain restrictions on accessing various government benefits.

There are parts of this legislation that we support. Firstly, we support a change of name for the agency: from the Affirmative Action Agency to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency. I believe that that change properly reflects the role of the agency but not, unfortunately, the impact of this legislation. Following on from this, the title of the agency's director will be changed to the Director of Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Agency.

The opposition also supports the widening of the definition of `employment matters' to take in the termination of employment and the establishment of an advisory board. It is quite timely that we are having this debate now. The Affirmative Action Agency tabled its 1998-99 annual report in parliament just one month ago and I spoke on the report at that time. The annual report highlights a number of things about the treatment of women in the workplace that emphasise the need to oppose many of the changes to this bill that will impact on the agency. This bill should be opposed because it will eat away at the improvements that have already taken place for women in the work force and make it harder to combat the discriminatory practices that are still in place.

The Director of the Affirmative Action Agency identified a number of continuing problems facing women in the work force. These include the fact that Australia has one of the most gender segregated work forces of any OECD country, women in management figures remain low and achieving pay equity is still a long way off. There are also concerns that, while there has been a steady increase in the number of best practice agencies, we might now be approaching a plateau and that some industries, as a whole, are struggling with affirmative action. Further, 70 per cent of all people who live in poverty are women and their dependent children; there has been a dramatic increase in the casualised work force; the fastest growing area of employment is in contracting; and, in countries where women are not given a choice to balance their work and family commitments, they are choosing to not have families and remain in the paid work force.

The agency acknowledges that reports made to it by various groups show incremental improvements to practices. Unfortunately, the agency has adopted a recommendation from the review committee and not provided a rating scale of organisational compliance. Reports from employers are now being assessed simply on whether or not they comply with the provisions of the act. This is unfortunate because it robs the community of the chance to see which organisations are doing particularly well in promoting equal opportunity for women in the work force. The government's amendments seek to enshrine that change in the legislation. That change means that an organisation that has gone out of its way to help women achieve their full potential in the work force by providing a range of innovative and effective programs is seen as doing just as well as one that has done the bare minimum needed to comply with the act.

That does not sound to me much like the incentive based schemes Mr Reith keeps saying will do wonders for workers. Mr Reith goes on and on about incentives for workers, but what he is saying to businesses is, `Look, all we want is a bit of a wink from you that you are doing the absolute bare minimum.' Where are the incentives for businesses to perform better in this area, Mr Reith? Where are the incentives for the companies that are already performing to keep performing? Where are the incentives to improve for companies that are doing the absolute minimum they need to under the act?

Mr Reith also says that the changes in this bill are about cutting red tape and streamlin ing procedures. The people on this side of the Senate are not so easily fooled. Many of these changes are part of the continuing campaign by the workplace relations minister to weaken workers' rights. He has attacked the unions, he has attacked the award system and now he is attacking women. This time, however, he is not coming head-on; he is trying to creep around the back way, hitting out at worker's rights when he thinks nobody is looking. Mr Reith tried the same tactic of sneaking through bit by bit changes to workers' rights using the Federal Magistrates Bill. He failed with that ploy and he will fail with this one too.

The opposition is moving a number of amendments to this bill designed to keep it working. Our amendments seek to achieve several things. They extend the definition of employment matters to include arrangements for dealing with pregnant, potentially pregnant and breastfeeding employees. We also want to take the reasonable step of ensuring that compliance with guidelines developed under the act is admissible as evidence in cases brought before the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. We seek to remove the exemption of employment by an instrumentality of a state and the exemption of educational institutions established for religious purposes in relation to pregnancy and potential pregnancy.

Further to that, the opposition is also moving amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to implement recommendations from the recent Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report entitled Pregnant and productive: It's a right not a privilege to work while pregnant. The report highlights the major problems faced by pregnant women in the work force. The report documents the terrible treatment endured by some pregnant women in the workplace. The changes it recommends to the Sex Discrimination Act that our amendments cover include: empowering the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to publish enforceable standards in relation to pregnancy and potential pregnancy in the workplace; inserting a specific provision that prohibits the asking of questions which might reasonably be understood as intended to elicit information about pregnancy; clarifying the unlawfulness of discriminating in medical examinations of pregnant women during recruitment; allowing referrals by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to the Industrial Relations Commission of discriminatory awards or agreements without the need for a written complaint; including breastfeeding as a ground of unlawful discrimination; enabling the awarding of punitive as well as compensatory damages; ensuring coverage of unpaid workers; removing the exemption of employment by an instrumentality of a state; removing the exemption for educational institutions established for religious purposes in relation to pregnancy and potential pregnancy; and clarifying federal coverage for federal statutory authorities, judicial office holders and members of parliament.

The fact that the government has left the Pregnant and productive report lying on the shelf is an absolute disgrace. The community is still waiting for the government's response to this report—we all are. The government has a responsibility to respond to this report sooner rather than later. Maybe the government think the problem will go away. Maybe they think that in nine months time there will be no more problems. Well, they are wrong. Women who work will continue to become pregnant and the opposition will continue to support them. The ALP will move the amendments necessary for women in work who become pregnant to continue to play an active role free from discrimination.

This legislation makes some substantial changes to the mechanisms that exist to protect women and increase their legitimate role in the work force. My concern is that the changes proposed by the government, whether made out of malice or not, will wind back the clock for working women in Australia. When proposing any changes of this type, the government should be able to show in concrete terms how those changes will benefit women down the track. No matter how hard I look, I cannot see those benefits.

In conclusion, as my colleague in the other house Mr Martin Ferguson said:

An understated feature of the labour market of recent decades is that, while women from wealthier backgrounds have made great leaps forward, those at the bottom have not been as fortunate.

For this reason we must not further erode conditions which will disadvantage those who do not have the bargaining power or the educational advantages to stand up to unfair practices. A fair and just society believes in equal opportunities for all. This government has already introduced draconian industrial changes which have weakened women's rights in the workplace and this bill does nothing to reverse that trend. This bill cannot possibly be supported.