The impact of COVID-19 – and the public health response to it – on communities and workplaces has been harsh. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the crisis is worsening class, racial and gender inequalities. In this article, Tamara Ryan (UnionsACT Women’s Campaign Organiser), Sarah Ambrose (UnionsACT Women’s Committee Convenor), and anonymous examine how women are already bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s negative impacts and will continue to do so long into the future.
Image: Members of the UnionsACT Women's Committee. December 2020.
The impact of COVID-19 – and the public health response to it – on communities and workplaces has been harsh. Over the past six months we’ve seen the introduction of temporary reforms to help people navigate the crisis over the short-term, like the introduction of the JobKeeper program, the doubling of the JobSeeker payment, reforms to protect tenants, and free childcare. Despite these measures, for many people the future is dominated by anxiety about job security and the prospect of a long and slow economic recovery. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the crisis is worsening class, racial and gender inequalities.
Experts around the globe have highlighted that women are already bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s negative impacts and will continue to do so long into the future. These impacts include disproportionate job insecurity, significantly increased childcare responsibilities, unsafe working conditions, a spike in domestic and family violence, and more.
In Australia, industrial relations reforms over many decades have led to mass casualisation of workforces across many industries, excessive reliance on labour hire and lower wages in women-dominated professions and sectors. At the same time, governments continue to underfund critical social supports, such as housing and family violence services. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the devastating impacts of these decisions, including their disproportionate negative impact on women.
Governments can and should drive policy decisions to improve gender equity in Australia so that our communities, families and workplaces are resilient and flexible in ordinary times and times of crisis. This means appropriately valuing and investing in the work of women, including the immense amount of unpaid care and domestic work they do. It means investing in social supports to remove barriers from women’s full engagement in the workforce. And it means recognising and addressing domestic and family violence.
Employment equality: pay, safety and security
The COVID-19 crisis has been a disaster for women’s employment. Prior to the pandemic the gender pay gap already left women at a financial disadvantage. Now, with women disproportionately represented in the casualised sectors that have seen the most job-losses (such as retail and hospitality), and the professions most at risk from COVID-19 transmission (such as aged care and nursing), women workers are left financially disadvantaged and in danger of infection.
The reduction in women’s working hours and pay freezes due to the pandemic do not bode well for gender equality in Australia. A significant gender pay gap already exists in this country, currently sits at 14% (men earn on average $253.60 per week more than women in full time work) and still very high in the health care and social services sectors (14.1%) where 80% of the workforce is comprised of women.
Given the overrepresentation of women in casual work, any policy changes that seek to close the gender pay gap must increase the opportunity for secure work and end employers’ reliance on casualisation and labour hire. One clear and simple policy change to materially improve the lives of women workers and their families would be to remove the Average Staffing Level cap in the public service that has resulted in billions of dollars flowing to labour hire companies rather than stable, permanent employment for workers. Without this arbitrary cap on staffing numbers, significantly more secure jobs could be provided in the public service, which is a women-dominated workforce.
Another policy intervention to address the gender pay gap is to ensure adequate wages for workers in the women-dominated aged care and childcare sectors. This includes providing adequate government funding to these sectors, ensuring equal pay for equal work across the private and NGO sectors, and pushing back against privatisation in these critical industries.
A further intervention to address the widening of the gender pay gap due to the pandemic is to extend access to JobKeeper for casuals in the women-dominated hospitality and retail sectors. This will enable women to stay connected to their workplaces, and ensure they have enough income to remain financially independent through the crisis.
In addition to being disproportionately financially hurt by the crisis, women are also at greatest risk of COVID-19 infection in the workplace – making up the majority of workers in highly exposed industries like health care, education, child care, aged care, hospitality, retail, and social services. These are industries also typified by low pay, high levels of casualisation (generally without sick leave or other entitlements). This means more women are working in higher risk environments, for lower pay, and with fewer financial protections to support them to follow public health advice to stay home and isolate when sick. It is not only to the benefit of women workers themselves to ensure that they are afforded adequate financial protections, but is also a sound and necessary public health intervention.
Many women workers rely on childcare in order to participate in the workforce. Even prior to the pandemic-induced reductions to many women’s working hours or wages, childcare has long been unaffordable for many women workers. Unaffordable childcare limits women’s participation in the workforce as women overwhelmingly are the parent who ends up taking on fewer work hours in order to stay at home and care for children. This in turn can seriously impact women’s career progression and income.
Federal government funding for the childcare industry in Australia as a proportion of GDP is lower than the OECD average. As a result, on average, families with children (under 12 years) in Australia spend over $10,000 per year on childcare, which can be more costly than sending a child to private school. Some aspects of preschool education funding are not funded on a regular or on-going basis, meaning that the childcare industry suffers from uncertainty. These funding issues create barriers for parents – particularly mothers – to re-enter the workforce after having a child.
The Federal Government announced free childcare due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in April this year. This meant that many families were able to access this essential service without the usual exorbitant costs, and allowed women workers to stay connected to the workforce at a time when financial insecurity loomed and when many people experienced reduced work hours and wages.
However, this vital support was withdrawn after just three months, in July. This decision has caused immense pressure on the sector and on the families that rely on subsidised early education. This will likely result in many families needing to provide ongoing stay-at-home care for their children. As is clear from the unfolding situation in Melbourne with a disastrous second wave of COVID-19 infections, this decision was premature.
We know that responsibility for picking up the shortfall in care will largely fall to women, who will be forced to delay their return to work for an uncertain period of time. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, during the pandemic stage 3 lockdown in Australia in May 2020, 84% of women spent more time caring for their children compared to 73% of men [ABS, Household Impacts of COVID19 Survey, 12-15 May 2020]. Women also reduced their hours at work (20%) or took leave (9%) and worked from home (42%) in order to look after children and others. More women had caring responsibilities with children and vulnerable people in their families and were three times more likely to look after children full-time on their own, leading women to do more unpaid work. [ABS, 12-15 May 2020]
Providing accessible childcare is comparable to providing access to schools or medicine. Childcare is part of our national infrastructure and should be subsidised further. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18 the federal government spent $31 billion on childcare, while between 2019-20 and 2023-24 is estimated to spend $35.7 billion. On face value this may seem like a substantial increase, but this funding has hardly kept up with inflation and during that time the number of children attending childcare has increased from 1,120,880 (Dec 2013) to 1,399,440 (September 2019). [Productivity Commission, Childcare and Early childhood learning and Department of Education, 2019].
Increased funding for the early education sector is not just about subsidising the sector (since the 1990s has been dominated by large private sector operators driving up prices). It is about the government regulating the industry by regulating prices and providing state run centres to create competition. Diversification of this sector to include the private, public and not for profit providers will create more spaces for children, competition and provision of more permanent jobs. This will go a long way towards easing the strain, both for families who are reliant on childcare services, and for people (overwhelmingly women) working in the sector.
Early access to superannuation
In March, the federal government announced that people experiencing economic hardship due to COVID-19 would be allowed to withdraw up to $20,000 from their superannuation ($10,000 per financial year in each of 2019-20 and 2020-21). Dangerously, this policy change was announced before the JobKeeper package was announced, and many people who ended up eligible for JobKeeper payments had already withdrawn from their superannuation before finding out that they had alternative avenues for financial support.
So far, at least 581,700 women have accessed their superannuation early to ease the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Short term financial relief via early access to superannuation may seem innocuous, but can seriously worsen long-term disadvantage and inequality in retirement.
There is a large gap between the superannuation savings of women and men in Australia, as the superannuation system is linked to paid work. As mentioned above, women continue to earn less than men and are more likely to be engaged in casual and part-time work, all of which contributes to the gender gap in retirement savings. Therefore, any change that results in further reduction of superannuation is particularly harmful to women.
The compound loss on an individual’s retirement savings arising out of an early release of superannuation embeds disadvantage and inequality over their lifetime. For a woman in her twenties, for example, withdrawing $10,000 from her superannuation has the potential to leave that woman hundreds of thousands of dollars poorer come retirement.
People seeking to access their superannuation early are generally the least wealthy and financially secure, including many women workers, and are therefore precisely the people who can least afford to give up the financial gains provided by the compounding effect of superannuation.
Let’s turn now to the other pandemic – family violence. We keep hearing the refrain that “we’re all in this together.” But we’re really not. Before COVID, one in six women experienced sexual or physical violence from a current or previous partner. Surveys from community services show this has increased by over 50% during the pandemic to date. These surveys also show an increase in the complexity of cases and escalating violence.
Perpetrators have weaponised COVID-19, using it to coerce and control their victims. Some claim they have COVID so they – and their partners – can’t leave the house. Some start rumours their partners have it, in an attempt to further isolate them from their families, workplaces and other sources of support. Some make women wash their hands until they bleed or prevent them wash at all. Some threaten to or take children to crowded areas and send photos. The list of examples goes on.
Added financial, health and domestic strains, the difficulties of handling children at home, substance abuse, and a decrease in women’s economic stability have all influenced the spike. Work from home arrangements and social distancing from support networks have increased victims’ isolation. The respite of a workplace for those living in abusive relationships has been removed. The coercive control and surveillance by perpetrators has increased.
To be clear these stressor factors do not cause domestic violence. Patriarchal systems of power and oppression do. Like all structures, though, these can be changed. Leading this change is the responsibility of governments but also of employers, as evidenced by a recent landmark case in which the children of a woman murdered by her partner whilst working from home were awarded Workers’ Compensation.
A key part of keeping women safe from domestic and family violence is ensuring financial security for women seeking to leave a violent situation. Networks of union women have been calling for paid domestic violence leave for years from the federal government. This would allow women facing violence to find alternative housing and attend appointments whilst still maintaining financial independence. It is also vital to many women leaving violence that Centrelink payments are available, and are adequate to support their independent living, including for women supporting children. This means both permanently raising the rate of Centrelink payments, such as JobSeeker, and removing the partner incomes means testing for JobSeeker.
State, territory and federal governments need to produce universal guidance for employers on “Work-related gendered violence including sexual harassment” as they have in Victoria. They need to fund training and materials for workplaces on respectful relationships and bystander approaches to family violence. Governments should implement Family and Domestic Violence model clauses in all public servant Enterprise Agreements, and require businesses nation-wide to do so.
The domestic and family violence services sector was already stretched and underfunded prior to the COVID-19 crisis. As a result of the pandemic, many services have been forced to shift to phone-only support, which is inadequate to keep women safe. As many domestic violence services have been calling for, the government must provide adequate funding and support to ensure that victims-survivors are able to access face-to-face support through this crisis, including safe places to isolate with children if needed.
In a post-lockdown world, governments need to apply a gender lens in developing national and state-wide responses, informed by community sector services and their unions who know what changes are needed. To date this advice has been ignored, with the halting of JobKeeper early for female dominated industries like childcare and ongoing, targeted investment in male-dominated, business-orientated services and infrastructure.
We need to ensure financial independence for victims-survivors through striving for equal pay, end casualisation, and ensuring social security payments are adequate.
We need to invest an already critically overstretched social support system around domestic violence, but also in broader “social infrastructure” that will benefit working women, like affordable housing and universal early childhood education.
We need to invest in the women and workers who run this country.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
1. On an account with the median superannuation annual compounding interest rate of 7.5% and assuming a retirement age of 67, a $10,000 withdrawal at age 27 would leave a person $180,400 poorer come retirement. On a lower interest rate of 6%, the same withdrawal would leave someone $102,900 poorer come retirement. On a higher (but still not uncommon) interest rate of 10%, the same withdrawal would leave someone $452,600 poorer come retirement. A $10,000 withdrawal at age 57, just ten years away from retirement, on the median 7.5% annual compounding interest rate would leave someone $20,600 poorer come retirement.