G20: the union movement's fight for gender equality in the labour market

Women are more reliant on decent labour law, minimum wages and conditions, and labour market protections. Yet these minimum protections are continually under attack, and the reach of these safeguards against exploitation is declining.

Ged Kearney
12 November 2014

Everyone seems to be in furious agreement about the benefits of increased labour market participation of women. It is of course generally acknowledged that those benefits include an increase in government revenue through income tax; increased diversity and quality of the labour market; increase in aggregate demand through higher household wealth and spending; improved economic independence for women and less reliance on welfare.

Indeed, reducing the gender labour market participation gap in G20 countries by 25% by 2025 would bring in as many as 100 million women to the paid workforce. In Australia alone if women’s participation in the paid labour market increased by 6% from current levels, GDP could increase by as much as $25 billion.

But simply increasing women’s participation in paid work is not enough to sustain meaningful growth in GDP. Decent wages and social investment policies are the key to generating sustainable GDP growth. Since the G20 target of 2% additional growth over 5 years was set in February 2014, GDP growth has in fact stagnated in many countries due to fiscal austerity and depressed incomes of working families. These austerity measures have not been shared equally or fairly, nor have they boosted the spending capacity of workers to generate further economic growth.

The ITUC Global Poll 2014 which surveyed the general public in 14 countries found more than half of the respondents say their family income has fallen behind the cost of living. Further research undertaken for the L20 shows that reversing the decline of the wages share in national income by between 1% and 5% of GDP in G20 countries could raise growth by close to 2% over the next 5 years.

Increased employment participation will not deliver decent employment or equality for women without government led, targeted policies. In Australia, as in many of the G20 countries, women’s participation in paid work has increased significantly over the past decades, but this has not delivered equality for women.

In Australia, the gender pay gap between full-time women and men is at a 20 year high of 18.2%. The gap between actual earnings is more like 35%.  Women are concentrated in low income, precarious employment. Not surprisingly, women retire with almost half the pension savings of men. This pattern is consistent amongst the G20 countries: the global gender pay gap is 22.9%. According to current trends, it will take another 75 years to bridge the global gender pay gap. We are a long way from gender equality in the labour market.  And the data seems to suggest that the more women enter the workforce, the more pronounced the gap in wages and conditions becomes.

When we look at where the projected ‘growth’ in women’s employment participation is, it is in the undervalued, under-funded, under-paid female dominated sectors such as domestic, health, disability and aged care. These jobs are associated with extremely low wages, inadequate hours of work, unpredictable schedules and income and lack of allowances traditionally paid for unsocial hours of work or travel time and costs. For example, see the Social Community Home Care and Disability Services Award.

Whilst noting that the LEMM Declaration committed G20 members to ‘enable women to pursue self-employment and become entrepreneurs’, we have concerns that this could exacerbate women’s exclusion from labour law and social protections afforded to the sector.

There is evidence that suggests many women are forced in to self-employment as a result of the lack of family friendly or equal opportunities in the formal employment sector. Not only do a very significant proportion of these entrepreneurial businesses go bankrupt, a recent study found that over half of self-employed women entrepreneurs in Australia cannot afford to pay themselves a wage or to contribute to their retirement pensions.

Women are more reliant on decent labour law protections, minimum wages and conditions and labour market protections because of their low bargaining power and marginalised employment. Yet these minimum protections are continually under attack, and the reach of these protections is declining.  ILO data indicates half of the world’s workers are in employment outside of wage and salaried employment, and women are over-represented in this type of unregulated, informal and vulnerable work.

Governments need to take steps to bring such ‘informal’ labour in which so many women work, under the same labour law protections afforded to the ‘formal’ sector. Currently only 15 countries have ratified the ILO Convention which provides basic protections for domestic workers. Women are more vulnerable to cuts to social welfare support, accessible health and education and decent old age pensions. When governments dismantle or degrade social protection and minimum wages they undermine a fair and dignified standard of living for women.

Unions are defending this social wage compact from so called austerity measures. Because independent analysis has demonstrated that the biggest losers are women. Unions will continue to campaign for not just better workplaces, but a more equal, more just society with a social wage compact which fundamentally supports equal opportunities for women.

Labour market and economic equality cannot be achieved without addressing the unequal burden of unpaid domestic and care work on women. Increased participation of women in the workforce will not happen without governments putting in place the necessary support structures and legislative reform to lift the burden of domestic and care work.

In developing countries, many women still lack access to basic infrastructure and services such as piped water, sanitation and technology to facilitate their participation in paid work.

Access to quality, affordable childcare, elder care, universal health and education, paid parental leave, suitable work-time and working conditions and progressive welfare-tax policies are critical foundations to supporting women’s participation in paid work.

But just as importantly, we need to shift the ideological and economic positioning of unpaid care as the domain of women. Increased labour force participation of women must be complemented by a commensurate trend towards greater sharing of unpaid caring and household work in families.   Women are increasingly entering the paid workforce, and family budgets are increasingly dependent on dual incomes, but women still carry out the bulk of unpaid domestic and care work.  Women are often left with a double shift of paid and unpaid work.

The Grattan Institute has found that, in Australia, “female participation can only change significantly if more mothers have jobs”.  Yet, maternal employment rate in Australia is well below the OECD average, with the low participation rate of mothers barely changing since 1990. The recent 2014 AHRC Review of discrimination in pregnancy and return to work sheds some light on why this is the case- finding that 1 in 2 women report being discriminated against whilst pregnant or upon returning to work.   Around 20% of Australian mothers who do not return to the workforce cite the reason as ‘not being able to negotiate suitable work conditions’. As a result, they are often forced in to low skilled, low wage, insecure jobs in an effort to combine their paid and unpaid work.

This is a common issue across G20 countries and is a key driver of the global gender pay gap. Employers need to take responsibility for their role in facilitating meaningful participation of women and men with caring responsibilities in their organisations.  This is simply good management of their internal work force as well as the macro benefits it delivers to the nation.

In Australia, unions are opposing a Government Bill, supported by key employer groups, which allows employers to negotiate agreements with employees to trade off wages and conditions for family friendly work arrangements.  If passed, this legislation will simply further exploit women and serve to increase the gender wage gap. We cannot allow increased participation of women to be based on exploitation and inequality. Not only because it is unfair, but because it will not deliver meaningful, sustainable economic growth.

The G20 Labour and Finance Ministers, in the joint meeting in Moscow July 2013, committed to “labour market and social investment policies that reduce inequality”, such as “targeted social protection and appropriately set minimum wages.

We note and commend the LEMM Declaration which commits G20 nations to build on these words of commitment by implementing policies to improve:

  • Access to education and training for girls and women;
  • Access to child and elder care, paid parental leave and flexible work opportunities and conditions;
  • Access to property rights, financial literacy and markets and entrepreneurial opportunities;
  • Access to employment services and labour market programs;
  • Remove legal and cultural barriers to employment and eliminate all forms of discrimination;
  • Extend the coverage of social protection to women working in the informal sector or poor households;
  • Enhance the female share of executive positions in public and private sectors;
  • Work with social partners to develop new employment opportunities for women; 
  • Collect employment data related to gender.

What is missing from this list though, are commitments to:

  • Address the gender pay gap by ensuring adequate labour regulation, including a decent safety net of decent minimum wages and conditions which women disproportionately rely on;
  • Improve the wages and conditions of women in under-funded and under-paid female dominated employment sectors;
  • Extend the coverage of labour laws to all workers in the informal sector and ratify the Domestic Workers’ Convention;
  • Ensure access to universal health and education, welfare and pensions, which women disproportionately rely on in order to fully participate in the paid labour market.

In addition, governments must not just collect employment data related to gender, but publish and act on that data. In particular, Governments must recognise the effect of their policies on women and accept responsibility for their role in addressing gender inequality. It is grossly inadequate to affect ‘policy neutral blindness’ to the economic and social impact of government policies on women which directly contribute to the increasing gender equality gap.

A ‘gender lens’ must be applied to all G20 commitments to ensure gender equality is squarely set as a goal for all policies and actions. This will ensure women are treated equitably and will ensure the economic benefits that flow from greater female participation are sustainable in the long term.

Unions, domestically and through international organisations such as the ITUC and ILO are a voice for working women. They are vitally important in shining a light on the real life experiences of women and to ensuring policies are put in to action. For this reason, an ongoing dialogue post the G20 meeting in Brisbane which includes the union movement is critical to facilitating effective implementation of G20 commitments.


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