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Speech: Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 13 Sep 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:29): The Greens support the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012. We recognise that the measures set out here are quite minimal, but they still do provide some improvements for women in the workplace. I will come back later to some of the comments by the previous speaker, Senator Cash, but at the outset I would like to say that her contribution reminds us of what an Abbott led government would do to this country, in particular to women, and how tough it would be. That is certainly coming forward as a very relevant part of this debate.

When we are talking about workplace gender equality I think it is worth reminding ourselves just how much we need to achieve. Women make up more than 70 per cent of part-time employees in this country and only 35 per cent of full-time employment. The gender pay gap is also an interesting statistic. I pay tribute to our forebears, the women who, over many decades, have worked so hard for equal pay, but we are moving to that at such a slow pace. The gender pay gap is experienced at every level in the workplace, with women on average earning $250.70 per week less than men. Women still earn between 11 and 19 per cent less per hour than men in comparable non-managerial occupations. These trends are very worrying and in some areas the pay gap is becoming worse.

Just last month the Financial Services Institute reported a widening gender pay gap of 31 per cent in the financial services industry compared to the average 17 per cent gap across all industries. That is what we find when we look at the average figures of the difference between male and female pay rates, so in some industries the gap is much worse. It is also interesting to look at how graduates fare. More women than men are graduating with degrees; however, female graduates earn $2,000 a year less than male graduates on entry into the workforce.

I have set out those details just to remind us that we need much stronger legislation than the bill we are considering today. And it is interesting to consider that, from what I can see at the moment, there are 19 speakers listed for this debate and only three of them are men. But the bill before us is still a positive measure and I think we need to see it in terms of the long march to women's equality and equal pay.

The essence of the bill is that, from 2013, organisations with more than 100 employees will have to report annually on gender equality in their workplace and show improvements over two years if they are not meeting industry benchmarks. While this is supposedly already happening, not all companies report or their reporting is not compliant, and compliance enforcement is patchy. This is clearly why the legislation is needed and certainly answers Senator Cash's talk about how damaging the bill is.

But I would call the current penalty system pretty much a wet lettuce. For example, the current penalty of 'tabling' non-compliant companies in parliament will be strengthened, whereby non-compliant companies may be disqualified from access to government work contracts or government funding or other financial assistance. Government contracts do represent quite a convincing amount-they are coming in at $42 billion-so hopefully that will be some incentive. However, the operative phrase here is 'may be disqualified'-it is only 'may'. The Greens therefore will be watching closely to check that that is enforced. How will it work? Companies will have to report to the new Workplace Gender Equality Agency on two matters. One is the gender composition of their boards and the second, importantly, is their performance against a set of gender equality indicators and outcomes. This is in the context of expecting that there will be ongoing improvement.

The gender equality indicators are a most important part of this bill. They are where we get down to some detail which, if it is followed through, can make a real difference to gender equality in the workplace. These indicators will be explicitly listed in the act to include: gender composition of the workforce and governing bodies, equal remuneration between men and women, flexible working arrangements and working arrangements relating to employees with family or caring responsibilities. Another important aspect is that the bill requires consultation with employees on issues concerning gender equality in the workplace.

The results should be that the reports are real, they represent what is going on within those companies and their employees can have some real and meaningful input. We should be able to get past the situation where companies whack out reports that have been done just at the top levels of the companies and they are able to do a bit of a spin job on how they come forward. Now, management at the highest level must engage with gender equality, with CEOs being required to sign off on the reports. Employees and their representative organisations must be advised within seven days of the report being lodged and they may provide comment to the employer or the Workplace Gender Quality Agency. The reports must be accessible to employees and shareholders, and the agency will have inspectorial powers to verify the reports. So again I put on the record that it is a good start, but there is a long way to go.

One aspect that the Greens are concerned about is that the bill excludes those businesses with fewer than 100 employees. We see that as quite detrimental. It means that about 4.8 million employees, which is nearly half of the private sector employment, are not covered by this legislation. The Greens see this as very unfortunate and we will continue to advocate for its extension to those businesses as well. The reframing of the act to include an expectation that male employees should be flexibly available to provide caring roles outside the workplace finally recognises that women's employment opportunities are limited when men are not available to share family responsibilities is a workplace norm. Again, that is another area where I would like to congratulate the minister who has worked on this legislation. I see that as an important part of the legislation to help change those attitudes within our society.

The explicit reference to pay equity between men and women ensures that this is not just a woman's problem. The new requirement for hard data provides a basis for clear measurement and benchmarking of gender equality in larger companies. Again, I think it is laying that basis for this important work to continue and to be extended. Better transparency is welcomed with employees' access to their company's reporting and an opportunity to comment on that reporting. The ability of government to wield a decent sized penalty for non-compliant companies is one of the positive changes that go some way to addressing the unacceptable fact that equality for women in the workplace has a long way to go.

This brings us back to some of the comments by Senator Cash. She spoke many times and opened her speech noting the strong commitment that she argues the coalition has to equal opportunity to women in the workforce. This is coming from a member of a party that gave us a former prime minister who was so keen to frame his policies around the white picket fence-and we know what that represented in terms of women's rights. A former treasurer, Mr Costello, was out there promoting his three-children policy to women. There is that whole culture within the coalition party that limits the rights of women.

Yes, there are many areas where we have been able to work together but, when you get down to the details, particularly the details of women's rights in the workforce-and there we are talking about the fact that a majority of women are still dominating in those low-paid areas of the workforce-that is where you see the massive failure of the coalition's policy. That comes through so clearly in the amendments that Senator Cash has outlined.

You have to see the coalition's attempt to dumb down the reforms in this piece of legislation as a worrying forecast of what is to come if we end up with an Abbott-led government which would be favouring business over women's equity at work. When we get to the committee stage, I think that Senator Cash has to be open and go into those aspects, because that is the wash-up of the amendments that we have before us. In essence, what the amendments do is return to the status quo of how the present system works. Clearly, when you look at the inequity in pay for women, how women dominate in the poorly paid jobs-jobs where there are few career paths-and the ongoing inequality in our workplace to try and wind back the clock, as the coalition is attempting to do with their amendments, this exposes what their policy stands for.

There are two broad areas which Senator Cash spoke about: she wants to retain the current power of the agency to waive public reporting requirements for relevant employees. Even though the whole point of the bill is that all companies must report on how they are meeting the minimum EEO standards, because they have not been required in the past, the coalition is saying: employers should not have to be held to account regarding minimum EEO and antidiscrimination standards. That is the wash-up of what the coalition's amendments would do, so you cannot therefore be concluding that the coalition is committed to women's equality in the workplace.

The second aspect of the coalition's amendments is that they would remove the proposed requirement for the minister to set minimum standards in relation to gender. What is wrong with that? Surely if you are committed to women's equality in the workplace, you would want to ensure that the minister had that ability. In many ways, the whole point of the bill is for the minister to set minimum gender equality standards. This is more accountable than the agency setting the standards, which is the current situation. Again, it is a very revealing amendment that helps unpick where the coalition stands on women's rights in the workplace.

I look forward to the debate when we move into committee. The Greens will support the bill in its current form. The Greens will not support the amendments as outlined by Senator Cash on behalf of the coalition but we will continue to advocate for stronger measures to ensure that we move more quickly to women's equality in the workplace. We would argue that the starting place is the need to move this legislation to cover all private sector businesses and not just those with over 100 employees.



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