Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Work and Care Select Committee; Report

4:01 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It is with considerable pride that I rise to speak to the tabling of the final report of the Senate Select Committee on Work and Care. This report is comprehensive, thorough and unwavering in its account of the current state of work and care in Australia. Both the formal and informal care economies in their present form present unreasonable challenges and cause unacceptable harm to far too many Australians. This report documents that reality, and it offers a range of policy options for governments of all persuasions in undertaking the modernisation and reform of this sector. It is a sector that has been so long neglected. There is no quick redress of the great challenge that lies there before us. It's going to require fiscally as well as socially responsible change—incremental change—to ensure that Australia's formal and informal work and care industries are fit for purpose and fit for the 21st century.

I would like to begin by thanking my Labor colleagues on the committee, Senator White and Senator Stewart, for their diligent work throughout the course of the inquiry. I'd also very much like to thank Senator Barbara Pocock—her first term here, as a new Greens senator, and her first inquiry. I want to acknowledge—something that is so often unacknowledged in the media—the collegial nature and collaborative way in which this committee has proceeded to hear the real voice of Australia and to document it in a way that will help us name the current reality and actually shape the wicked policy problem that confronts us. Senator Pocock led the committee in a way that enabled us to do that in the writing and the review of the final report.

I'd also like to thank members of the opposition—in particular, Senator Askew, who's just made a contribution to this debate, as well as Senator Ruston and also Senator Bragg, who filled out the team. Again, that collaboration and spirit of goodwill throughout the course of the inquiry is important. I want to note that this committee report lands with additional comments from all groups—from Labor senators, from the Greens senator who chaired the committee and also from Liberal senators—but they are not dissenting reports; they are additional comments. We will necessarily have very different ways of thinking about what should happen next and the manner in which the timing might be undertaken. And of course I want to acknowledge how important fiscal responsibility is in the current climate to make this task achievable at the same time as ensuring the wealth and benefit to the nation of managing our economy with care and rigor.

One of the most consistent pieces of evidence heard throughout the course of the inquiry related to the gendered and uneven burden of care responsibilities and the way in which women in both formal and informal care economies are disadvantaged by current systems and practices. The report also explores the ways in which the socioeconomic devaluation of care work—in particular, care work that is predominantly still undertaken by women—has entrenched gender and other inequalities in our workplaces. Arising from the evidence received by the committee, the report considers the impact of these inequalities throughout people's lives, revealing a lifelong pattern whereby the cost of care is disproportionately borne by women on lower wages, in insecure employment and with low retirement incomes.

Given the almost categorical disadvantage inherent to the experience of women within the work and care sector, it was particularly poignant that the committee itself comprised almost entirely women, with the exception of Senator Bragg. I note that Senator Bragg was balancing his own childcare responsibilities while participating in this inquiry. That reflects the changing nature of Australia and care and the way in which we need to respond to that reality.

Whilst each of the groups occupy different points on the political spectrum, the drive to ensure that the report accurately reflected the state of work and care in Australia was one by which we stood very firmly. The outworking of the set of recommendations that we've delivered today will have real capacity, over time, to address the disadvantages of women in this sector, and there was universal agreement about that. I'd like to thank the secretariat—another team composed almost entirely of women—for their diligent work throughout the course of the inquiry. They're deserving of singular praise for the quality of the report that's been produced.

We heard evidence from a wide range of stakeholders: major retailers, unions, individual workers, early childhood educators, care advocacy groups, those within the formal care economy and beyond. Each one of the insights that were offered from those groups provided valuable contributions to the committee, and the recommendations of the report arise directly from their evidence.

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association argued in their submission to the committee that access to carers leave should be extended to caring for anyone a worker provides care to, regardless of whether they form part of the person's household or immediate family. The reality is that people are caring beyond those arbitrary boundaries and their care is intersecting with their work, and not in a way that is sustainable, healthy, or practical. Families are not singularly defined. People may have different family structures that don't fall into the traditional definition of immediate family, and the provision of care to the people they recognise as part of their family or community should be supported. Care is a reality and a need that extends beyond bureaucratic attempts to contain it. The committee responded to this evidence through recommending that the definition of 'immediate family' be broadened within the Fair Work Act to more accurately reflect the close personal relationships which many Australians have in which they provide care. This is just one example of the way in which the committee directly responded in its recommendations to the evidence gathered and delivered to the inquiry.

The report also recommends that the government undertake consideration of a number of measures relating to paid parental leave and early childhood education and care which will seek to form a pathway to bring Australia to the forefront of best practice when it relates to this industry. Labor is deeply proud of its legacy in the introduction of paid parental leave and the very important recent passage of legislation which will bring Australian carers to 26 weeks of paid parental leave within the coming years. But the reality of neglect in this area by the former government means that the path to what was declared as the international standard of 52 weeks is an enormous policy and fiscal challenge that needs careful attention and strategic planning.

The report also contains recommendations aimed at ensuring that Australian workers have access to flexible working environments and roster justice and that large companies cannot intentionally fail to collect data which would demonstrate the often inflexible accommodation attitudes of management to those seeking altered hours and conditions. The SDA's 2021 survey report into work, family and care saw the collection of data from over 6,000 employees. It was submitted to the committee, and 55 per cent of the survey participants said they provided care to another person on a regular basis.

This is not a niche issue. This is happening in every community, every family and every set of care relationships in our country. It's for that reason employers must ensure that flexible working arrangements are a practical reality for employees and that the process of requesting altered hours or conditions is not bogged down by bureaucracy or subject to the whims of individual managers. We have made recommendations to that end.

Mandated roster notice periods were very uncertain. The data poverty was like a black hole. I was appalled that major providers of retail in Australia could tell us, within 10 seconds, of product leaving shelf 7 of aisle 3 but couldn't tell us about their workers and their shifts and rostering. That is no longer an acceptable reality in this time, when so much data is available to us.

Evidence heard throughout the course of the inquiry also detailed increasing prevalence of gig platforms within the Australian economy and the way in which such platforms leave workers without normal working protections. It's also argued by some stakeholders that the algorithmic aspect of these platforms has the capacity to amplify existing bias and discrimination. For this reason, recommendation 26 of the report is that the principle of equal pay for equal work should be applied to those in the gig economy and that the Australian government should remove incentives for gig platforms to avoid workplace regulations. This recommendation arose out of evidence provided to the committee particularly relating to the potential harm of gig platforms in relation to the formal care economy.

The report provides a range of options for further policy work and offers the government the opportunity to consider the work of the committee as it plans a forward program. The government has already made substantial progress towards improving Australia's industrial relations framework, as well as our formal and informal care economy. The centrepiece of the government's first budget was a major investment in affordable early childhood education and care and modernisation and expansion of paid parental leave. Sadly, this report reveals there is so much more work to do.


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