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Women and the Recovery



Tanya Plibersek MP


A year ago, we were in the middle of a recession. We were trying desperately to suppress the virus, by locking down our biggest cities. We were dealing with danger of serious illness and death and the catastrophe of unemployment and business collapse. Labor was urging the Government to adopt policies that would help us out of the mess, as quickly and as fairly as possible.


But instead of building back better, the disastrous failure of our vaccine rollout and hotel quarantine has plunged half the country into lockdown again – and has made a second recession highly likely.


This pain is being felt right across the community, but particularly in the lockdown states and particularly by workers in insecure employment. It’s being felt by workers who have lost their job or kept their jobs but are losing shifts. It’s being felt by overworked and stressed healthcare staff and other essential workers. It’s being felt by business owners whose doors are shut again. It’s being felt by kids who can’t go to school with their friends.


And it’s being particularly felt by women. Women have been more likely to lose work in these lockdowns, particularly in affected sectors like retail, hospitality and tertiary education. Women are more likely to have lost their job than men, and more likely to have lost hours at work. They’ve drawn down a higher percentage of their super balances to survive. And they’ve been more likely to take on extra domestic responsibilities, as whole families are working and learning from home, while childcare centres have closed and family supports have been pushed out of reach.


The economist Andrew Charlton calls this a ‘triple whammy’: women have lost more paid work, been burdened with more unpaid work, while receiving less income support from government.


This lack of support is a choice being made by Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg. They can find $13 billion in JobKeeper for companies whose profits have increased during the pandemic, but nothing for universities where 58% of employees are women and where a shocking 35,000 jobs have been lost. There’s an immense gulf between the economic pain being experienced by women, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, and the help being offered to them.


This has been made much worse by how the latest package of disaster payments has been designed. In Greater Sydney, 19% of men have received the payment, while only 12% of women have. That’s despite the fact that, according to the most recent employment data, women workers accounted for 80% of the job losses. It’s not a competition – but it’s not fair either.


Likewise, with the recovery, the bulk of infrastructure stimulus spending will support jobs in blue collar industries, while caring jobs in aged care, disability, health and education continue to be underfunded. In fact, according to research by the Australia Institute, every million dollars spent stimulating the building industry creates 0.2 jobs – while a million dollars in education creates more than ten jobs. In healthcare, the same money creates almost eight.


The Liberals’ failure to properly support women during the pandemic, nor consider their need in building back, shouldn’t be a surprise. A party that marginalises its own female members, fighting yesterday’s war against quotas and greater representation, isn’t likely to legislate in women’s interests. Whether it’s job security for low paid and insecure workers, or women’s safety from sexual harassment at work, or affordable childcare, or women’s dignity in retirement – at best, these issues have been ignored. At worst, they’ve been actively undermined.


After the past eighteen months we’ve been through, this is no way to honour the immense sacrifice Australians have made to fight the pandemic. Women have been – and still are – on the frontline of virus suppression, as nurses and doctors and cleaners and checkout workers. They’ve picked up the slack at home. They’ve watched their grandchildren grow up on video chat. They deserve better.


Labor has a plan to honour this hard work – and to offer something better on the other side. That’s why Labor activists have fought to achieve 50/50 representation in our parliaments. Not to help female politicians, but to produce the kinds of policies that will improve women’s lives.


We have a plan to bring down the crippling cost of childcare, which has become unaffordable for millions of families – and which too often stops a second earner in a family from taking on extra hours of work. We have a plan to build 10,000 new social houses, including at least 4,000 for women and children escaping violence. We also have a plan to guarantee 10 days domestic violence leave – so no one has to choose between their safety and their job. And we would never make women escaping domestic violence drain their superannuation before getting help from the government as Scott Morrison tried to do.


We have a plan to give women greater workplace security and a decent pay rise again, by increasing the ability of Fair Work Australia to order pay increases in low paid, female dominated industries – and by defining casual work properly in the Fair Work Act. We’ll also make companies report their gender pay gaps, so they can’t get away with short-changing their women workers. And we’re committed to building Working Women’s Centres in every state and territory, to provide free and confidential advice about workplace issues.


We have a plan to keep women safe at work, by implementing all 55 recommendations from the Respect @ Work report – not just the six which are easiest.


If we’re going to reverse the backsliding on gender equity that’s happened under this government, we need it to be front of mind in all our thinking. That’s why Labor will bring back a proper women’s budget statement and introduce a National Strategy for Gender Equality.


Scott Morrison will not solve any of these problems. It’s not even clear that he knows they’re problems in the first place. For that, we need a Labor Government – because it is always Labor that delivers on gender equality.


Tanya Plibersek MP is the Member for Sydney and the federal Shadow Minister for Women.