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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1348

Senator LUNDY (7:07 PM) —I also rise to speak to Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2007-2008 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2007-2008. I note that within those appropriation bills there are a range of issues, including for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. I would like to gear my comments towards that particular area of policy, given it has been such a major priority of the Rudd Labor government in its first 100 days. I note that we have successfully passed the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 in this place and we are on our way to changing that system, particularly to remove the unfair impacts of AWAs but also to transition the system to one that, as people now know, looks forward with fairness.

The particular points I want to make are about the impact of Work Choices on women in areas of non-traditional employment for women and why, at a time of severe skills shortages, we have seen female workers leave non-traditional areas of work. For many years—as I know many of my Senate colleagues would know—Labor sought to alert the Howard government in their term to Australia’s developing skills shortages. The situation we have inherited in government is that of a skills crisis.

I remember, even prior to me being elected, before 1996, Labor in government had a forward-thinking policy of encouraging women into non-traditional work areas. I was familiar with this, working in the building and construction industry, and, as an organiser for the CFMEU, was often at the forefront of many of those policies being implemented in the building and construction industry. The policy changes that took place back then, however, quickly diminished when the Howard government was elected. We now find, by doing statistical analysis, that the numbers of women entering blue-collar trades over the past decade have not significantly increased. In some areas we have lost female workers from areas regarded as non-traditional for female workers. It is claimed that the Australian labour market is now the most sex-segregated amongst OECD nations.

In fact, according to an article that was published I think in late 2006 in the Business Review Weekly: ‘Women are fleeing the technical professions, but nowhere is the problem so pronounced, and the effects so widespread, as in the declining participation of women in the information and communications technology sector.’ Information technology, as everybody knows, now underpins every industry and profession. Women make up about 20 per cent of the ICT workforce but only 15 per cent of specialist roles. However, what we have observed over the last few years is that student enrolments in university information technology courses have fallen, with the major decline in enrolments being those of young women. We witnessed a 50 per cent decline in 2005. Despite convening a summit on women’s participation in ICT back in June 2005, the then minister responsible, Senator Helen Coonan, failed to address the problem with the introduction of any useful measures. Unfortunately, the Howard government’s discredited Work Choices legislation actively worked against any efforts that may have been able to be made at the time.

Studies of the participation of women in other non-traditional areas reveal similar trends. The rate of women enrolling in engineering courses fell from 20.5 per cent in 1997 to 14.2 per cent in 2004. In architecture the enrolment rates were higher, but retention rates are a problem. Less than one per cent of women achieve top positions in architectural practices. Only six per cent of engineering managers are women, only three per cent of building construction managers are women and just four per cent of mechanical engineers are women. Raising the participation rate of women in the mining industry, too, will be necessary to overcome the skills shortage that is being experienced there. Only 12 per cent of the mining workforce is female, and at the site level women represent only three per cent of the workforce, including office staff and professions. Manual strength is no longer a primary requirement for most jobs in the mining industry and it is now vital for the mining industry to seek the extra workers it needs from non-traditional backgrounds, such as female workers and Indigenous workers. I do acknowledge that many are making an effort in that regard, but I think you will see, as I make my presentation this evening, that there are some structural inequities that have been put in place by the use of AWAs in those sectors.

We have long recognised that, to attract women, companies must be prepared to provide more family-friendly conditions and facilities such as child care, flexible hours and conditions, maternity and childcare leave, and the availability of part-time work. Equal pay and opportunities for advancement are important too. There is no doubt that some of those occupations that require being isolated from towns and the sorts of places where families would like to live present an additional challenge. Although the business sector generally realises that the skills shortage has become the primary issue of concern, individual companies have been reluctant to implement these policies to attract the female workers they need. I can speak from experience again in the building and construction industry: there are chronic skills shortages, but we are not seeing the changes in behaviour across that sector as far as making workplaces more family friendly is concerned. As an example, at the managerial level and the governance level, only six per cent of mining companies have even one woman on their boards.

The problems of retention of skilled women workers in non-traditional employment were exacerbated specifically under the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation. If we had needed yet more proof of the devastating effect that Work Choices had on Australian workers, women workers and families, it was provided by the recent report from the Workplace Research Centre at the University of Sydney. The centre examined every new collective agreement in the retail and hospitality industries in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in the first nine months after Work Choices. It found that the average pay dropped between two and 18 per cent, with the worst hit employees losing more than one-third of their salaries through so-called ‘legal’ agreements. Most AWAs removed penalty rates and overtime, increased managerial power and gave inadequate compensation for what the employees lost. The fairness test that was later introduced, in May 2007, did not apply to people already on those agreements, and in any case it did not protect many of the lost conditions, such as casual loadings, severance pay, rostered days off, minimum length of shifts and workers’ rights to control hours or changes of roster.

The study found that only 10 per cent of the agreements mentioned child care, job sharing or part-time work. Those agreements which did keep award conditions or improved on minimum standards had mostly been negotiated by unions or were in larger workplaces. But the Howard government wanted us to think that these agreements were negotiated through a one-on-one employer-employee process. The truth was that there was a growth industry of consultants and lawyers producing minimalist templates for businesses to use in order to cut wages costs. Wage-fixing arrangements established under the Work Choices legislation led to a real wage decline for most low-wage workers—that is, women, part-time and casual workers.

I have set the context of the general impact of AWAs, particularly on women workers. I will go now to studies comparing wages and conditions of AWAs and collective agreements, using Australian Bureau of Statistics wage data. These studies found that not only were women workers in female dominated areas of employment—the ones I have just described—disadvantaged under AWAs, but those in non-traditional areas suffered as well. ABS data showed that, for non-managerial employees, the most disadvantaged group appeared to be female labourers and related workers—that is, women in non-traditional areas of employment. In 2006 those women workers were being paid 26 per cent less than women on collective agreements employed in similar work: $13.40 per hour compared to $18.20 per hour for those on collective agreements. In the last 10 years the percentage of labourers and related workers who are women has decreased from 38 per cent in 1997 to 35 per cent in 2007. In employment classified as intermediate production and transport, male workers dominated in 2007, with only 13 per cent of the workforce being female—a proportion which has not changed since 1997.

Tradespersons on AWAs in 2006 were also paid less than those on collective agreements, with the shortfall for female tradespersons on AWAs being even greater than for their male counterparts. Women tradespersons on AWAs were paid 18 per cent less in 2006 than their counterparts on collective agreements—$16.80 per hour compared to $20.40 per hour for those on collective agreements—whereas male tradespersons on AWAs were paid eight per cent less than their counterparts on collective agreements—$26.50 per hour compared to $28.90 for those on collective agreements. You can see that the disparity there is far greater for women in those areas, but when they are on AWAs as well the disparity is greater still.

Data from the studies showed a widening gender gap in wages. One example was of women workers in transport and intermediate production. Those on AWAs in 2004 earned 81 per cent of the male AWA wage, whereas back in 2002 they earned 91 per cent of the male wage, so they lost 10 per cent compared to their male counterparts in a period of just two years. Over the last two years of the Howard government the gender pay gap increased by 1.4 per cent, despite a longstanding general commitment to attaining equal pay.

The bottom line with all of these statistics is that they illustrate a direct disadvantage to women working in non-traditional areas. It might seem like a lot of statistics, and I have to say it took a lot of research to analyse what data was available in order to be able to make these observations, but the disadvantage they show was being felt by women in non-traditional areas of employment. Whether talking to women in the Institution of Engineers or to women who are operating in the building and construction industry or other non-traditional areas of employment, what was found was a sense that it was getting tougher for women to survive in that environment. I have a great deal of empathy for women working in this tough environment. It is very heartening to be standing here today knowing that legislation which takes the first major step in the transition to Forward to Fairness passed this place just yesterday. We can now start dismantling the discrimination that has been occurring for women in non-traditional areas of employment.

Debate interrupted.