Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 May 2020


Women's Economic Security

7:55 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This global pandemic has shown us that we're all in the same storm but definitely not in the same boat. Despite the government mantra 'we're all in this together', too many people are being left behind—the majority of whom are women. We already know that more women than men work in casual, poorly paid and precarious roles in industries like hospitality, retail and the arts. These sectors have been some of the hardest hit by COVID restrictions, and many of the affected workers are ineligible for JobKeeper because they're short-term casuals.

Women are also more likely to work in the industries that we are asking so much of during this crisis—our healthcare and aged-care workers, educators and cleaning and sanitation workers. Again, despite how essential these roles always were and have again proven to be, they remain amongst the poorest paid. Women in Australia also do the bulk of caring work, which is clearly so essential in our society but much of which is unpaid. Seventy-two per cent of primary caregivers are women.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has reported women spend approximately two-thirds of an average work day on unpaid work, compared to about one-third for men. Whilst it's too early for data about the division of domestic labour during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is safe to assume that increased demand for child care, supervising schoolwork and caring for sick relatives has also fallen predominantly to women.

The persistent gender pay gap above 13 per cent meant women were less prepared for a drop in income. Their wages are already stretched to capacity. Analysis of how the first COVID supplement was spent makes clear that most women spent those additional funds on food, clothing and rent. This money helped them and their families to weather the crisis.

The government scheme for early access to superannuation is also concerning. Women already retire with, on average, superannuation half that of men. Withdrawing $20,000 now will have significant implications for the amount that women have to support them post retirement. Closing the gender pay gap and the retirement income gap that follows is unfinished business that must be addressed in the recovery.

Two of the significant advances of the COVID response—doubling the jobseeker payment and free child care—should continue once the pandemic eases. There are issues to resolve in relation to family day care and in-house care, but the Greens want to see early-childhood education remain universal, public and free for good. The COVID crisis has already highlighted how precarious access to reproductive health care can be, particularly in rural and regional areas—compounded, of course, when travel restrictions were imposed upon doctors. Ensuring affordable access to reproductive health care across Australia must be a priority.

Some of the hardest decisions being made in the pandemic are those made by women with abusive partners, seeking to protect themselves and their children. These women have been placed at a heightened risk of domestic violence, with women's safety organisations, crisis accommodation and legal services all experiencing much higher demand. Many women, particularly those on visas who are unable to access the jobseeker or JobKeeper payments, have been forced to decide whether to stay in an abusive home or escape into poverty and homelessness. Federal and state governments have recognised these risks and invested some additional funds, but, after years of funding cuts and ongoing funding uncertainty, much more is needed to ensure women and children seeking safety can access the services that they need.

The government's financial response to the COVID crisis demonstrates that investment in social infrastructure is less about having the resources to do it and more about spending priorities. Too often, those priorities are gendered. There are clear ways forward to ensure we move from this crisis towards gender equality and equity by addressing the gender pay gap, valuing unpaid care work, investing in housing, adequately funding domestic and family violence services, continuing free early-childhood education and investing in a strong social safety net. The women of Australia deserve no less.