Poverty and Insecure Work Through a Gendered Lens

Aggi Court is ANU Labor Students Club President and ACT Young Labor Women’s Officer.

Jill Molloy is NUS Welfare Officer and ACT Young Labor President.

Insecure employment and low wage growth are growing problems across Australia. Wealth inequality is at a 70 year high and wage growth is at its lowest in two decades. Widespread casualisation ­of the Australian workforce – which means the replacement of jobs that were previously permeant part-time or full-time contracts with casual roles ­– has led to lower wages and fewer workplace entitlements. As of 2017, 25 per cent of the Australian workforce is employed casually.

And while financial insecurity affects many in the Australian community, women are heavily over-represented in insecure and casual work. Workplace insecurity, therefore, must be analysed through a gendered lens.

But first, what is insecure work? The Howe Inquiry defined it as “work [of] poor quality that provides workers with little economic security and little control over their working lives.” This manifests as unpredictable hours, no paid leave, inferior entitlements and fluctuating pay.

Generally speaking, women are paid less when compared to men, are less secure in their workplace and retire with less superannuation. In 2011 and 2012, 14.7 per cent of all women compared with 13 per cent of all men in Australia experienced poverty.

The over-representation of women in insecure work is part of a complex structure of barriers and disadvantages faced by women.

Women who are single mothers, immigrants, Indigenous, students, fleeing domestic violence or in rural and regional communities, as well as women with disabilities, are particularly vulnerable to financial stress and have fewer employment options.

Because women are more likely to undertake unpaid work – in their homes and communities – they are often in a weak bargaining position in the labour market, making them more vulnerable to exploitative or insecure workplace arrangements.

Women are also more likely to work in low-paying fields such as retail, hospitality and the community sector. For example, within the community sector in Canberra (aged care, child care, social work and carers), 78 per cent of employees are women and 85 per cent of workers in the sector are employed on a part-time basis. Earnings for employees in the sector are 43 per cent to 55 per cent lower than in other industries.

This is an expression of the systemic devaluation of women’s labour.

Overall, in 2013, 27 per cent of all female employees were in casual jobs compared to 21 per cent of males. In the ACT, 59 per cent of casual and contract employees in part-time positions are women.

Further, the 2011 Census showed that 41 per cent of Canberra women earn less than the minimum weekly wage of about $600 per week, compared to 29 per cent of men.

These statistics demonstrate the structural discrimination that women face in the workplace.

Not only does this insecure work and low wages affect women’s immediate economic security, it also has flow-on effects for women’s retirement. Low wages or inconsistent income means women are more likely to retire with insufficient superannuation. This can lead to further housing stress and even homelessness in retirement.

Arguments in defence of the gender pay gap by conservative men often cite that women are more likely to work part-time, casually or in low-level jobs. But the argument is circular.

The fact that women work in low-paid jobs says less about their capabilities than it does about the devaluation of ‘women’s work’ and the implicit assumption that women are unworthy of workplace protections and economic freedom.

As feminists, we must work to improve the material reality of women’s lives. Women cannot be safe, successful, happy and fulfilled if they cannot financially support themselves and their families.

Fighting to improve industrial laws is, therefore, a profoundly feminist issue.  

Sisters, on a final note, join your union!