Originally published in Michael West Media on March 24, 2021

As women lead mobilisations against workplace gendered violence, the federal government passed legislation expanding employer power to use insecure, casual labour in its IR bill – laws that will disproportionately impact the pay and security of women’s jobs.

In this commentary, Senior Economist Alison Pennington explains how new casuals measures and the government’s wider economic policies – including in industrial relations, childcare, welfare, and fiscal spending – significantly undermine the economic security of women, entrench pay inequality, and ultimately, increase their vulnerability to gendered violence.

This commentary was originally published in Michael West Media.

Crocodile tears no mask for Coalition’s economic war on women

Well may Scott Morrison tear up as he relates how his daughters, wife and widowed mother drive his every decision. The facts are that every move of the Coalition government ensures women are poorer, more insecure at work and more vulnerable to violence on the job. The Industrial Relations bill pushed through last week is a final nail in the coffin for women. Alison Pennington reports.

After a month of anger from women around the country about sexual harassment and the treatment of women in the workplace, federal parliament passed legislation last week that will strike a massive, lasting blow to women’s job quality and pay, entrenching pay inequality and exacerbating women’s economic insecurity.

The mainstream media has mainly focused on the fact that most of the Industrial Relations bill didn’t pass. But the cornerstone of the legislation – and the primary reason for its inception, pre-pandemic, by business lobbyists – did.

A new legal definition of casual work will allow employers to call any job a casual one. Jobs can now look and smell like permanent jobs, except that employers can legally engage you as a casual, stripping away your legal entitlements at will.

So-called “permanency conversion” rights in the legislation are so weak that employers will easily craft employment arrangements to lock in casual jobs long-term.

Employers will simply vary rosters

Employers will vary rosters sufficiently to ensure that employees will never reach the benchmarks of six and 12 months of regular schedules that should lead to permanency. In any case, employers will be allowed to refuse offers on “reasonable grounds”. And small businesses, which employ a huge 44% of all private sector employees, are exempted entirely.

The federal government’s new casual laws will expand the incidence of casual work. Women will disproportionately suffer in a labour market with diminishing opportunities to obtain secure, decent jobs because women are more likely to be in casual roles (filling 54% of all casual positions). And women’s vulnerability to casualisation is growing. Women accounted for 62% of all new casual jobs created in the period from May to November 2020.

Casual workers are not compensated

Despite claims from employers that casual workers are compensated for the loss of entitlements and lack of predictability in rosters and tenure, nothing could be further from the truth.

Casual workers are, on average, paid far less than employees in permanent roles. Median weekly earnings of full-time casuals were 23% lower ($1080 per week) than those in permanent roles ($1400 per week), and 45% lower for casual part-time workers ($390 per week) compared with permanent part-time workers on $720 per week.

The expansion of the power of employers to use casual work in a jobs market awash with many hungry mouths desperate for paid work means more women in lower-paying, insecure jobs.

The government’s decision to subject the unemployed to a below-poverty JobSeeker rate means more women reliant on employers to survive. At every move the Liberal National party government is making Australian women poorer, more insecure and more vulnerable to violence on the job.

Women return to lower quality jobs

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg celebrates the recent fall in the unemployment rate to 5.8 per cent, claiming the recovery is well under way. But the detailed job quality data tell a very different story for women.

Women workers are “snapping back” to a world of paid work on inferior terms compared with men – fewer hours, less pay and less security.

Casual jobs accounted for 64.3% of the total growth in women’s employment from May to November last year.

Alarmingly, more than half of all the growth in women’s employment over the six-month period was in both low-hours and insecure work, with 52.4% of total growth in employees in part-time casual jobs.

Traditional full-time permanent jobs with normal entitlements (such as paid sick leave, holidays and superannuation) represented a dismal 10.4% of female employment growth from May through November.

It’s a crude fact that as women’s casual jobs were booming, business lobbyists were pushing for passage of the IR Bill on the basis that employers “lacked confidence” to hire casuals due to legal “uncertainty”. Australia was simultaneously experiencing the largest and fastest increase in casual employment in its history.

More fuel for gender pay gap fire

The consequences of an employment recovery overwhelmingly concentrated in part-time and casual jobs for women is more fuel for the gender pay gap fire.

The gender pay gap is most often measured by comparing the earnings of men and women in full-time jobs. But women face persistent barriers to workforce participation – including unaffordable childcare, lack of family-friendly work arrangements, and workplace discrimination. Consequently, almost half (45.1%) of all employed women are in part-time work.

Measuring the gender pay gap using total average earnings data (including both full-time and part-time workers, and bonuses and overtime as well as ordinary time wages) indicates that the gender pay gap is 31% across all jobs – a more dire, but more accurate, measure of the pay gap.

Ironically, the gender pay gap narrowed in the early stages of pandemic and recession. From late-2019 to May 2020, the gap between male and female total wage incomes declined from 31.4% to 29.6% – down by 1.8 percentage points.

But this did not represent “progress” in pay equality. The gap only closed because more than 300,000 women in low-paid casual roles lost their jobs, which increased the average earnings of those women who were able to stay connected to the workforce.

How good’s “snap back”?

As the economy recovered from May last year, an influx of women’s lower-paying jobs widened the gender pay gap again, just as quickly. How good’s “snap back”?

Instead of improving the quantity and quality of jobs for women, governments have actively pursued policies that will exacerbate pay inequality this year and into the future.

In addition to casual work changes pushed through in the IR bill, two other policies create higher barriers to women’s participation in paid work, and suppress their pay once they get on the job.

The federal government and all states and territories (bar Tasmania and Victoria) have imposed punitive and counterproductive public sector wage freezes and caps on their workforces. This suppression of public sector pay hurts women most because they account for 61.7% of all public sector jobs.

The failure of government to provide affordable, quality childcare presents another major barrier to women’s paid work opportunities. After dangling free childcare in front of families early in the pandemic, the federal government cut supports and reintroduced fees after just three months.

The return of full-fee, high-cost childcare prices women out of paid work. More than half of women with young children outside the workforce list childcare costs as a key factor in their decision not to work. A childcare system that lets a small number of profit-driven providers determine access denies families and their children access to critical developmental education and much-needed community bonds as people emerge from pandemic-era isolation.

Rebuilding women’s economic security requires a very different approach from the bankrupt austerity agenda of government. Women need more and better quality jobs, free childcare, a superannuation system that provides genuine income security and an employment relations system that works to lift the quality, pay and safety of their jobs, not undermine it.

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by Chris Wright

Chris Wright is Associate Professor in the Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney, and a member of the Centre for Future Work’s Advisory Committee. This commentary is based on his submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee’s inquiry into the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023,