Address to ‘Our Work, Our Lives Conference’ - Dili

Speech
  • Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations

Arbiru Beach Resort, Bebonuk, Dili, Timor–Leste

1.30 pm, Thursday 1 September 2011

INTRODUCTION

I am pleased to be here in Timor-Leste to speak about an issue that is important to you and the Australian Government – women’s rights and their entitlements in the workplace.

I am also pleased to support the establishment of the Timor–Leste Woking Women’s Centre and acknowledge the important work undertaken by the Australian National Network of Working Women’s Centres.

The Australian Government supports the vital work that Community Based Employment Advice Services deliver in local communities. The Government recognises that providing ongoing stable funding arrangements is paramount in delivering targeted services to disadvantaged and vulnerable workers.

To ensure Community Based Employment Advice Services have the capacity to deliver the best services possible to their local communities, the Government is seeking a formal partnership with the relevant state and territory governments, and will shortly commence consultations to facilitate this.

Irrespective of the outcome of these negotiations, the Government is committed to providing ongoing support and will ensure that those arrangements are in place by 1 July 2012.

[While I am here I will be visiting some of the projects funded by the Australian Government–ILO Partnership Agreement 2010–2015, including our 11.3 million dollar Youth Employment Promotion Program which is supporting 70,000 young men and women and which I understand is already achieving positive outcomes.]

PROMOTING GENDER EQUALITY IN THE ASIA–PACIFIC REGION

Ensuring we have gender equality in the workplace – both here and in Australia – is crucial.

The key to achieving that is having the right legislation, the right workplace relations system and strong unions.

Sadly, too many countries lack equal pay laws. The United Nations has recently reported that only 117 of its 192 signatory countries have laws guaranteeing equal pay for men and women. And, I quote,

“some 600 million women, more than half the world’s working women, are in vulnerable employment, trapped in insecure jobs, often outside the purview of labour legislation.”

Across the world women tend to be paid 10 to 30 per cent less than their male counterparts. This can’t be allowed to persist.

But there is good news too. Because while Timor–Leste is still in the process of establishing a permanent set of workplace relations laws, its interim laws have as one of their stated objectives the prohibition of discrimination between women and men.

The rights of women must become a central part of your permanent workplace relations system because, even though employment relationships are often informal and these can have benefits, they open up avenues to possible exploitation—and even physical danger for women.

When rights aren’t codified, they often cannot be enforced.

AUSTRALIA AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS

The establishment of a workplace relations system in Australia was one of the first significant legislative acts of Australian Federation 110 years ago.

Today that system, which was initially constructed around the concepts of conciliation and arbitration of disputes between employers and employees, and around the idea of a living wage for male breadwinners, has been transformed into something far more dynamic and equal.

Today, under the new Fair Work Act established by the current Federal Labor Government, our system is built around the idea of enterprise-level bargaining to raise productivity.

It is as much about creating new wealth as about ensuring that that wealth is fairly shared between employers and employees. Collective bargaining rights are strongly protected, but with guarantees against their abuse by employers and unions alike.

And—I am very proud to say—one of the crucial goals of our new system is to reduce and eventually eliminate the disparities in pay between men and women.

It gave me great pleasure at the International Labour Conference recently to represent a Labor Government that, two years ago, implemented the Fair Work Act. This historic reform, developed in consultation with unions and employers, ushered in a new era of cooperative workplace relations in Australia and re-established a fair and balanced workplace relations system.

The Government is pleased that the new Fair Work system has been received favourably by the ILO Committee of Experts and that, for the first time since 2001, the Committee has not expressed concern about Australia’s compliance with Conventions 87 and 98.

It was especially heartening to reflect on the observation made in the Director-General’s Social Justice report - released for the recent Conference - that it is countries such as Austria and Australia, which have recently reinforced their labour market institutions, that have weathered the global crisis so much better than other advanced economies.

AUSTRALIA AND GENDER EQUALITY

Australia’s economy is strong and wecan affordto pursue gender equity. And, I am pleased to say, we are.

The crucial principle that underlies gender equality in Australia is the principle of equal pay for work of equal value.

To suggest a woman should be paid less than a man she works alongside is wrong.

It is almost hard to believe, but until the early 1970s, it was still national policy to have different pay rates for women and men.

RESTORING THE MOMENTUM FOR EQUAL PAY

Today, the momentum for equal pay in Australia is being restored through the actions of the present Government.

We are determined to make progress towards greater gender equality in the workplace.

I am proud that Australia’s new workplace relations system restores the rights and conditions of the most vulnerable workers in Australia, as well as the right to be represented by a union and bargain collectively.

The new system also removes many of the historical barriers which have for generations prevented equal pay claims being brought forward.

In particular, the Fair Work Act provides for the right to equal pay for work of equal orcomparablevalue.

The Act also removes the onerous requirement of applicants to prove discrimination as a prerequisite to a claim. In other words, it recognises that the problem of gender pay discrimination is far more complex than men and women working alongside each other being paid at different rates.

It recognises that women tend to be employed in occupations that are under-valued compared to similar occupations traditionally the preserve of men, and that women’s occupations need to be better paid.

THE SOCIAL AND COMMUNITY SERVICES TEST CASE

The Government is supporting a test case brought by the Australian Service Union representing social and community services workers – plus four other unions – for equal pay orders for workers who provide critical services to some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

This sector employs more than 200,000 people—87 per cent of whom are women. The Government believes it is time their contribution to society was properly recognised and rewarded.

On 16 May this year, Fair Work Australia handed down a decision in the case which found that there is not equal remuneration for workers in the social and community services sector when compared to similar work undertaken in the state and local government sector.

Fair Work Australia also concluded that further consideration needs to be given to identifying what component of the undervaluation relates to gender and the appropriate remedy to address such gender undervaluation.

The Government welcomes this decision.

Although Fair Work Australia has yet to make a final decision, the Government has given a commitment to meet its responsibilities and provide fair and appropriate pay increases that may be awarded.

This will be undertaken in consultation with key stakeholders, taking into account the fiscal implications of any wage increase, as well as opportunities to pursue reforms for the sector.

The Government remains committed to achieving a fair outcome for women in this sector whose work has long been undervalued.

As the Government is one of several funding sources, along with the state and territory governments, it will be essential that all of the key stakeholders work together to ensure the continued sustainability of the sector.

The Government has also established a Community Sector Wages Group, which I chair, to bring together stakeholders to work through the cost implications of the case.

OTHER GOVERNMENT INITIATIVES

Our support for equal pay is just one of the steps we are taking to improve the lives of women.

Women employees were particularly badly affected by Work Choices and Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), through lower pay, fewer protected conditions, poor work/life balance and a loss in workplace flexibility. Remember that women working full time on AWAs took home on average 87 dollars and 40 cents per week less than their colleagues working on collective agreements.

With the introduction of the Fair Work Act, the Government has made it possible for more women to access family-friendly, flexible and equitable workplaces. Workplace regulations directed towards women are important components of the Australian Government’s efforts to support and improve women’s workforce participation, and to increase equality in the workplace.

Equal pay provisions are one of several measures taken by the Government to close the gender pay gap and improve the economic wellbeing of Australian women including new criteria to guide minimum wage increases, the new low pay paid bargaining stream and new opportunities for collective bargaining.

Through our new workplace laws, women have the right to request to work hours that enable them to care for children and elderly parents.

The Government has also introduced Paid Parental Leave — giving new mothers who work the equivalent of the minimum wage for 18 weeks. This is a huge step forward for working women—and working men who want to play a key role in their baby’s early months of life.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, can I say that, while our two countries are very different, with widely differing employment practices and social norms, there are important lessons that can be drawn from the Australian experience that can help you as you strive to create workplace rights for women in Timor–Leste.

The first is that good legislation is vital. Once established in law, women’s rights can be expanded in practice.

The second lesson is that a strong national workplace relations system needs to be put in place, because it will protect the rights of the most vulnerable employees.

And the third lesson is that having strong unions is important, because they play a vital role not only in organising and protecting women, but in initiating further workplace and social reform.

Much of the push for equal pay in Australia comes from both men and women in the trade union movement, as does much important social legislation that benefits women and their children.

And as the Australian example proves, unionism can encourage and nurture strong female leaders who can bring benefits to women across the whole of society. Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard came from the union movement—and she is just one of many such women in the Australian Parliament.

The Australian Government is proud to be playing a positive role internationally when it comes to the establishment of labour and women’s rights, both of which form such a central part of our overseas development programs.

We appreciate the great work you have done in pushing for progress in these important areas. It involves real commitment and courage and I salute the efforts you are all making.

Thank you.

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