‘Equal Opportunity’ in 1988 - A Balance Sheet

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16 years after the Equal Pay decision, women still wait for “Real Wage Justice.”

August 1988 was the fourth anniversary of the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act (Commonwealth) and the Equal Opportunity Act (Victoria) into Australia’s legislature. The legislation was a welcome reform, intended to give women legal redress against, and protection from discriminatory practices in the workplace and improved access to employment opportunities.

In 1988 with at least 833,181 women participating in the Victorian labour force, and comprising 40.2%  of total paid employment, the figures may suggest that the legislation has led to real progress. Yet when the reality of women’s work in the paid labour force is considered, it is impossible to view the legislation as anything other than lip-service to the bourgeois feminist cause. Whilst the Victorian Premier John Cain might well claim “not everything can be achieved at once”, the hard facts about the status of women in the Victorian workforce, as evidenced by recently released statistics, show that progress is painfully slow.  Working women in Victoria need much more than a few fine sounding Government initiatives. The position of women in the workforce is abysmal. Women’s average weekly earnings are still only 69.1% of male workers average weekly earnings, despite the fact women ‘won’ the right to equal pay in an arbitration decision sixteen years ago!

Of course if women and men had equal employment opportunities they would be fairly evenly distributed across most occupations and industries.There would be little concentration and segregation of men and women in particular occupations and industries. But 64.1% of female employees are concentrated in just 3 occupations: clerical, sales and professional work, and within these occupations, women are concentrated in the lower status and lower paid groupings, for example, 64.8% of women in sales occupations are sales assistants, tellers, cashiers and ticket salespersons. In comparison, men are fairly evenly distributed, and even within the traditional ‘female’ occupational groups they tend to occupy the higher status, higher paid jobs.

Similarly, data on industry segmentation identifies 65.3% of female employment as concentrated in 3 main areas: community services, wholesale and retail trades and manufacturing. However, within the community services  industry women are concentrated in education and health and form 68% of total employment. Likewise, in manufacturing, forming 73.3% of total employees, women are concentrated in the clothing and footwear industry.

While the employment basis of womens’ occupations and hours vary across industries, women working part-time account for 79.2% of total part-time employment. Many of these women are supporting dependent children aged 0-10 years, whether in  married couple families, which includes defacto status, or as unmarried family heads,59.1% and 44.1 % respectively.

Concentrated in  lower status and part-time jobs, women are denied opportunities to effectively develop skills and career opportunities. At the bottom of occupational and industrial hierarchies, they are also more vulnerable to changing economic conditions with altered skill demands and to industry restructure. In particular, women employed to do routine, low-skilled tasks are highly vulnerable to displacement through automation.

It is hardly surprising, therefore that female average weekly earnings in Victoria, according to 1987 figures, were  only 69.1% of their male counterparts, and that in every industry male employee earnings exceed those of female employees. Both men and women receive higher wages in male dominated industries than in female dominated industries, but even in female dominated industries, males earn more than females.

Since women face employment insecurity, given their segregation in certain industries and occupations, and their part-time status, they  experience higher unemployment rates than men. In 1987, the official rate was 6.9% or 57,300 unemployed. Whilst this compares with 5.3% or 64,700 unemployed men, the unemployment rates for teenage, young adult and “prime-aged” women are above the corresponding rates for men. With an unemployment rate 4.1% higher than Australian born youths, migrant youths are severely marginalised, yet even more marginalised are most Vietnamese and Lebanese migrants, and migrant women of all backgrounds, who have the highest unemployment rate, other than Aboriginal people. Of course, the real level of unemployment is probably 25% higher for women, in comparison to 9.9% higher for men, since calculations don’t include people who want a job but who have ceased searching because it seems futile.

Migrants make up a large proportion of the “hidden unemployed” –  those not officially counted. Many give up using the Commonwealth Employment Service because of the stigma attached to being on the dole, their lack of confidence in speaking English, the negative experiences of friends and relatives, lack of interpreters and bilingual counselling; cultural restrictions on young migrant women further disadvantage them. In addition racist employers may be unwilling to recognise educational and trade qualifications gained overseas, thus further hindering many migrants’ job prospects.

According to labour force statistics 38.8% of all employed women work part-time, the greatest percentage being those within the 35-44 and 45-54 age groups. For many of these women their part-time status may reduce or eliminate their access to non-wage benefits such as long-service leave, annual leave, sick pay, superannuation, entertainment allowance, medical, transport, housing and holiday expenses, or low-interest finance. In fact, women are almost 3 times less likely than men to receive no non-wage benefits, across all industries! At the other end of the scale, 24.6% of men receive five or more benefits, compared to 9.5% of women.

Consider womens’ access to superannuation schemes. In August 1986, the overall coverage of women was 27%, almost half of the superannuation average of males which was 53%. Lower coverage of women is common in every industry, but particularly in female dominated industries. The number of migrant workers who receive superannuation is an appallingly low 5%. For migrant women workers, superannuation is virtually unattainable.

Yet migrants are over-represented in workers’ compensation claims. Skilled trades and unskilled workers are at a greater risk, and 83% of immigrants were employed in these areas at the time of injury, compared to only 42% of “Anglo-Australian” workers. Migrant women, in jobs involving repetitive, rapid and strenuous work are particularly at risk, yet insurance companies are seven times more likely to accept the claims of Australian-born males. Migrants are commonly dubbed “compo-cheats” by insurance agents and employers – who ignore the fact that these workers are almost always in high-risk jobs. Migrants generally receive lower lump-sum payments and have periodic payments terminated earlier than Anglo workers. Doctors are apt to state the migrant worker’s ethnic origin, even though this is completely irrelevant to the injury claim.

Women in the labour force in Victoria have less formal accredited training than male co-workers, comprising just 35% of employed persons with degrees and 35.4% of persons with trade qualifications. In 1986, 58% of working women had no post-school qualifications at all. They are unlikely to have access to higher-paid, higher status jobs, for which training is presumably required. Since the structures and values of the education are not gender-neutral, young women emerge from schooling (at whatever age) with qualifications which exclude them from significant areas of employment in most cases. The tertiary education system serves to further marginalise women – and other oppressed groupings –  and enrolment in many courses has been further limited since 1986 by funding cuts and “administrative” fees, which hit external and part-time students—many of whom are women—particularly hard. The introduction of the so-called “graduate tax” in 1989 will see women’s participation in tertiary education decline further; indeed the “study now-pay later” scheme will act to discourage all marginalised groups from entering tertiary institutions.

The availability and cost of child care severely restricts women’s access to paid work in the labour force. The State Government recently   and has set aside 1000 child care places from its overall child care budget for work-based care. However only 7900 new places are expected to be created during the next 4 years – equivalent to 5 new centres per year. Worse, family day care, which involves superexploited female labour, is being pushed forward as opposed to the provision of fully-funded child care centres. This is unquestionably child care on the cheap!

So the Victorian government’s “initiative” is revealed as tokenistic and unlikely to increase the access of the vast majority of working women to areas of paid employment currently unavailable to them. On top of this there is the planned introduction of a new Federal government system of fee relief which will reduce child care from a key community service to a welfare handout and subject women seeking fee relief to investigation by the Department of Social Security. There will be an income test and the requirement of proof of identity and the “need” for fee relief.

The current wage-fixing system also compounds the plight of women in the labour force. The Australian Council of Trade Unions claimed that the two-tier wage system would benefit low-paid women workers. In fact, on top of the fact that all workers’ wages have fallen behind the inflation rate, the two-tier system has widened the gap between the pay of women and men. In the six months from May to August 1987 the wages of men rose by 2.3% but those of women only 1.7%. Before the new wage system took effect, women’s wages were increasing faster than men’s. A vast number of the lowest paid workers have still to receive a second-tier increase; again, these are women and migrants in the retail, clerical and service industries, and the most recent decision of the Conciliation and Arbitration system has deferred these increases. It is clear that the “two-tier” wage system has failed to meet the ACTU’s hollow promise to reduce the gap between low and higher paid workers.

It is four years since the amendments to Victorian Equal Opportunity Act broadened areas in which discrimination is illegal yet lesbians and gay men are still are not entitled to protection under the 1984 legislation. As a tool to fight discrimination on the job and in the provision of housing and other services a further amendment to the act to cover lesbians and gay men is needed. Lesbians, Aboriginal women, women with disabilities, migrant women and working class women and women dependent on social security have no access to the payoffs in financial security that the capitalist systems allows those privileged women who are able to operate within the system.

The limitations of seeking employment equality within the existing structures are clear. Equal opportunity programs only provide the option for some to get nearer to the top of an unequal system. We need to defend and extend such reforms by using them as tools to protect existing  rights and gains. But reforms cannot finally redress the inequitable position of women and other oppressed groups in the labour market, let alone society as a whole.

In order to achieve equality for all women, for all the oppressed, we need to address the capitalist system, which is the root of the oppression. The very nature of capitalism is that some of us engage in paid labour which directly creates surplus value, that is, profit. Some of us engage in unpaid labour which sustains those who gain wages, and which produces the next generation of wage workers. Some of us do both! Lastly, some of us are thrown on capitalism’s scrapheap, to survive on meagre welfare benefits, benefits which were won through working class struggle.

If we really want an end to labour exploitation, and the double jeopardy of women as workers, as well as an end to all oppression – racism, sexism, homophobia – then, through the struggle to defend and laboriously extend the gains we have, we all will be confronted with the realisation that revolutionary social change, not reformism, will be the pathway to our liberation!

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