What women face in the industrial landscape

Women's Conference 2020

Sophie Ismail, ACTU Legal and Industrial Officer, Gender and Equality, is sounding the alarm on how the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating inequities for women.

Ismail (pictured above) spoke with IEUA Assistant Federal Secretary Christine Cooper in a wide ranging conversation as part of the IEU’s Women’s Conference 2020. Like many events throughout the world this year, the annual conference had to move online.

Ismail began her career as an industrial officer in the IEU’s QNT Branch, then the VicTas Branch. She is dedicated to gender equity and human rights at work and has represented unions and union members in education, training and health in underpayment cases, workers’ compensation claims, discrimination and sexual harassment cases and enterprise agreement negotiations.

Despite some advances for women over recent years, including the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on Violence and Harassment (Ismail was a party to the negotiations), and some narrowing of the gender pay gap, Ismail says there are four key issues that warrant our immediate attention so women’s rights don’t go backwards.

Unpaid care work

“Australian women do most of the domestic work, volunteering and caring work – all unpaid,” Ismail said. “This has an impact on their employment and they suffer financial consequences.”

The pandemic, she says, has only accelerated this trend. “Women are doing an average of six hours per day of additional care work, along with an extra hour of housework. And many have paid jobs as well. When do they fit it in?!” she asked. What is urgently required, she says, are policies that specifically address this disproportionate workload for women.

Violence and harassment

Research already shows that during periods of emergency, women are at greater risk of violence and harassment. The pandemic is no different, as frontline workers such as teachers, nurses, retail staff and cleaners face stressed and anxious students, parents and the public.

“Many women are also working at home, which is positive in some ways, but for some it’s not a safe place,” Ismail said. “The economic impact of the crisis is giving rise to terrible increases in violence.”

The IEU’s Assistant Secretary, Pam Smith, notes that the union has made a considerable gain in this sphere. “We have achieved 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave in the Catholic systemic enterprise agreement, and we’ll pursue it for other EAs,” Smith said.

Yet when Cooper asked what the government is doing to address these issues, Ismail’s answer was straightforward. “Nothing,” she said. “There’s no evidence of gender analysis in terms of policy responses so far.”

It’s ordinary workers who’ve got us through this crisis. We know women workers are on the frontline –they’re owed more.

Before the pandemic, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, delivered the Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report to the government – a report the government itself had commissioned. “It’s a thorough and important piece of work,” Ismail said. “And the government said, ‘Thanks, we’ll read it’, but so far it hasn’t acted on it.”

This is why, she says, the ACTU has joined the Power to Prevent Coalition, representing over 100 organisations in the legal, health, community, family violence, business and union sectors, to put pressure on the government to implement the report’s recommendations.

Nor has Australia signed the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment, Ismail said. “There’s no excuse.”

Job losses

“The evidence is clear that women are bearing the burden of stand downs, reduced hours and job losses,” Ismail said. “These are in retail, hospitality, aviation and early education and care, which have a large proportion of women workers.”

In April, 55 per cent of all jobs lost had been held by women, and women are losing more working hours than men. Put simply, Ismail says, women are overrepresented in insecure work. And the first group to be shut out of the JobKeeper wage subsidy was the early childhood education and care sector – again, largely comprising women.

Cooper also noted this trend. “Support staff have been sidelined as some schools try to balance their budgets,” she said. “And more and more women are trying to balance work and caring responsibilities. If they take leave, they feel even more vulnerable.”

Gender pay gap

“Women earn about $240 a week less than men,” Ismail said. They also retire with far less superannuation than men, leading to many older, single women living in poverty.

“Pay equity provisions are very complicated and hard to navigate,” Ismail said. “There’s a requirement to compare yourself to a group of male workers, which undermines the whole purpose – which is not to compare but to say women’s work has its own value.”

Cooper emphasises that the IEU has worked tirelessly towards fair pay for teachers in the early childhood education and care sector.

Where to from here?

All this brings us to some key questions: How can we fight for a more gender equitable world?

“Join a union!” Ismail said. “We’re seeing record union growth. The ACTU has been fighting every step of the way. We immediately called for paid pandemic leave. We know the casual workforce is disproportionately made up of women, and that being faced with putting food on the table versus risking your health is not a real choice.”

And when we have a Prime Minister so focused on “tradies” and construction – male-dominated industries – how do we cut through to achieve policies that support women?

“We cut through by telling the story of workers,” Ismail said. “The ACTU is focused on that. It’s ordinary workers who’ve got us through this crisis. We know women workers are on the frontline – they’re owed more. We’ll be telling that story with case studies over coming weeks.”

You can watch the 2020 Women’s Conference on demand: theIEUzone.org.au

  • The Australian industrial landscape and key issues for women (4 August)
  • Union women discuss work, wellbeing and the way forward (11 August)
  • Workload issues in schools – knowing your rights (19 August).

  • Monica Crouch