Women's Economic Security

31 August 2020


It's no secret that many Australians are doing it tough. We continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic while experiencing the effects of the first recession in three decades, all while there are still so many attempting to pick up the pieces from the unparalleled bushfire season and long drought before that. Sadly, the evidence clearly shows it is women that have been—and are being—disproportionately impacted by these disasters.

When we went into shutdown, over half a million Australians joined the unemployment line. Fifty-five per cent of those were women. The occupations most hit—accommodation, food services and retail—are highly casualised and predominantly filled by female workers. We must also recognise that it is Australian women who've been on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis in underpaid and undervalued roles. Women account for 87 per cent of registered nurses and midwives, 87 per cent of aged-care workers and 96 per cent of early childhood educators.

Recently, I heard from early childhood educators in my electorate about the stress they are under—not only because of the health impacts of caring for little people and their families, at this time, but also because of the financial impact of the government's free child care, which effectively destroyed their businesses by halving their income. To add insult to injury, it was this essential service that was the first to have JobKeeper withdrawn. This is even though these businesses were—and still are—struggling with the downturn of enrolments, and the extra cost of cleaning and sanitising to keep themselves, their staff and their children safe and well.

The statistics of the pandemic are truly alarming. It is estimated that some 70 per cent of healthcare workers are infected with COVID-19 in Victoria's second wave, and they were infected at work. Nurses make up 40 per cent of those workers and a further 40 per cent are in aged care, both sectors with a predominantly female workforce. While the official unemployment rate sits at 7.5 per cent, the rate of underemployment for women sits at an alarming 16 per cent.

The issues of unemployment and underemployment for women, from the current recession, will last for the rest of their lives. Women already typically retire with half the superannuation balance of men. I fear this statistic will worsen as a result of the government's ill-conceived early super release scheme. Worse still, in recent weeks we've seen the Liberal Party starting to lay the groundwork to peel back plans for increases to the superannuation rate.

To better bring light to these issues, last Friday was Equal Pay Day. This day marks the 59th additional day, on average, women work to earn the same amount as men in any given financial year—59 days. Put simply, it reflects a national gender pay gap of 14 per cent. That's a full-time average weekly earnings difference of $253.60 a week. In my home state of New South Wales the pay gap figure is higher, at 15.34 per cent. Sadly, that hasn't budged for some time.

Another indication emblematic of a Liberal government that doesn't get it after almost seven years in government is that last year the Treasurer claimed in question time that the gender pay gap had closed. Although I wish that was the case, wishing does not make it so, and these figures bear that assessment out. In June the minister representing the Minister for Women said during an MPI, 'What you hear from the opposition is a long, ongoing, bleak, dreary narrative about entrenched disadvantage. You know, it's just last century.' Well, I wish it were just last century.

The Prime Minister has promised an update of the government's women's economic security statement in June, and we're still waiting. Let's hope the next statement, unlike the 2018 one, has a plan to close the gender pay gap, a genuine reform agenda that tackles job losses in female dominated industries, the gender pay gap and the discrimination that underpins these issues; one with strategies that assist women to boost their super balances and embrace the magic of compound interest and set women up comfortably for retirement, not one of poverty and homelessness. But I fear, like so many other Australians, that working women are going to be left behind by this government. With 400,000 Australians set to lose their jobs between now and Christmas, many of them women, we really need action now.