Senate debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023; Second Reading

10:51 am

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023. The opposition will be supporting this bill for a number of reasons, and we're pleased that the government has chosen to implement the reforms which, importantly, began under the former coalition government.

In 2021 the coalition government commissioned a review of the Workplace Gender Equality Act. In the 2022 Women's Budget Statement, the coalition also provided $18.5 million to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to support the implementation of recommendations from the review. The review itself was released in March 2022 and concluded that the gender pay gap in Australia was not closing at a fast enough rate. Whilst there has been much progress and work to progress women's economic equality in Australia, there has been slow progress on closing the gender pay gap, with progress stalling at 22.8 per cent in 2021 and 2022. The review considered if the agency had the 'appropriate powers, tools and levers' to achieve the objectives as stated in the act.

The review made 10 recommendations to accelerate the rate of change on workplace gender inequality and reduce the reporting burden on business. The measures contained in this bill implement in part or in full the following recommendations from the review: recommendation 2, 'publish organisation gender pay gaps to accelerate action to close them'; recommendation 3, 'bridge the "action gap" with new gender equality standards'; recommendation 5, support Respect@Work implementation 'to prevent and address workplace sex-based harassment and discrimination'; and recommendation 9, set the Workplace Gender Equality Agency up for 'future success to support employers to drive gender equality in Australian workplaces'.

Again, as I stated, the opposition are proud to support this bill, given in particular that it implements decisions taken by the former coalition government, and we commend the government for picking up on the work that was undertaken by the former coalition government.

The bill includes six amendments to the Workplace Gender Equality Act. It requires the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to publish the gender pay gap information of relevant employers of over 100 people for each reporting period. It requires relevant employers to provide executive summary and industry benchmark reports to all members of their governing body. It will rename the current minimum standards as 'gender equality standards'. It will include sexual harassment and harassment on the grounds of sex or discrimination as gender equality indicators. It will change the title of the director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to chief executive officer. It will also see a technical amendment to the definition of 'reporting period'.

The coalition is supportive of the fact that the government has chosen to implement this in a way that ensures there is no further regulatory burden for businesses under these proposed amendments. No technical change is required by employers in terms of reporting processes or the type of data that's provided to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency in this bill. Currently, organisations with over 100 employees must already provide remuneration data to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. The main change, therefore, that we are looking at in this bill is to allow the agency to publish this data publicly by organisation as opposed to just by industry type.

It's also important to note, though, that businesses in Australia were first required to report this data to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency under the relevant act from 1 January 2013. The reporting requirements for businesses, therefore, are not new and, in fact, have now been in place for over a decade. This is a set of reforms that the coalition itself would have introduced if we had continued in government, and I reiterate that we are supportive of implementing them. Again, as I said, when we were in government we provided $18.5 million in funding to ensure that these important steps could be undertaken.

The coalition also has a proud record on reducing the gender pay gap, as well as on boosting workforce participation by women to record highs. After we were elected to office in 2013, the former coalition government created in excess of 1.9 million jobs. Importantly, when you look at the breakdown of those 1.9 million jobs around 60 per cent of those jobs went to women. Female workforce participation was around record highs at 62.2 per cent when we left government. That's compared to when we were elected to government in 2013, when it was at 58.7 per cent. The gender pay gap reached 13.8 per cent under the former coalition government and, in fact, when we assumed office in 2013 it was actually at 17.4 per cent, where it sat under the former Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor governments.

The coalition government also delivered landmark funding of $5.5 billion for women through our two Women's Budget Statements. In 2021-22, we delivered the $3.4 billion 2021-2022 Women's Budget Statement. In the 2022-2023 Women's Budget Statement we delivered $2.1 billion. This included $1.3 billion to drive change for women's safety and additional funding to increase women's workforce participation, to support women in leadership and to improve health outcomes for women and girls in Australia. These budgets built on the coalition government's 2018 and 2020 Women's Economic Security Statements. These reforms are just part of the important actions that we undertook when we were in government to boost women's participation and position in the workplace. Subject to the passage of the legislation, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency is planning to publish the first round of organisational pay gaps in early 2024.

I would like to thank the major business peak bodies as well as the many women's organisations which have engaged in the reform process from the commencement, when the coalition first undertook the review of the Workplace Gender Equality Act. Groups like the Business Council of Australia, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group are all supportive of the changes. Groups including the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, the Minerals Council of Australia, COSBOA, Woolworths and the Law Council of Australia were also consulted during the review process.

Again, as I stated at the outset, the coalition will support this bill because it implements the important reforms that we had commenced whilst we were in government. We are proud to stand on our record of dramatically reducing the gender pay gap in Australia and of raising workplace standards for women in Australia. I commend the bill to the Senate.

10:59 am

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

I rise to speak in support of the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023. It was well timed that the Workplace Gender Equality Agency released its most recent progress report last week. That report shows how Australian employers are tracking against key gender equality indicators, and it confirms the role transparency and public analysis play in driving cultural change to close the gender pay gap and tackle inequality. It marks the improvements made in the decade since the Workplace Gender Equality Act was introduced. But the report also reports that progress on gender equality is moving far too slowly. In the 2022 global gender pay gap report, Australia ranked 43rd in the world for gender equality. It's a move up from our lowest ebb of 50th under the previous government, but it's still too low for a wealthy country that prides itself on equality. The overall gender pay gap went backwards during COVID, and it's now stalled at 22.8 per cent. We cannot allow equality to go backwards again. In the words of WGEA Director Mary Wooldridge, 'the slowing pace of change signals the need for a renewed approach.'

That brings us to this bill. The Greens have long called for reforms to address the key drivers of the gender pay gap: fairer paid parental leave, more equal sharing of care, accessible and free early childhood education, leadership quotas, supporting women in male-dominated industries, valuing unpaid care work, higher wages in the paid care sector, flexible work arrangements, positive duties to create safe workplaces, strong antidiscrimination laws and greater pay transparency.

We've also called for measures to strengthen the reporting regime under the Workplace Gender Equality Act. You cannot fix a problem that you don't understand, and you can't understand a problem without clear, consistent and meaningful data. Improving data on diversity, workplace harassment and discrimination, and on actions to address shortfalls, is key to improving workplace diversity, safety and equality, all of which help to close the gender pay gap.

While data collection is critical to understanding the problem, it can't be an end in itself. There must be compliance measures and incentives to drive change. Once companies have identified a gender pay gap, they need to take action, they need to be supported to do that and there needs to be consequences if they do not.

As part of the 2020 WGEA review, the Greens called for a number of reforms, including extending WGEA's coverage to public and private sector organisations with more than 50 employees, not the current threshold of 100 employees; measuring more than just whether policy exists and looking at whether those policies are implemented and what impact they are having; publishing employer-level pay data rather than sector by sector; naming and shaming, if you like, to encourage change; requiring employers to take action to close the gender pay gap and making employers not working to reduce their pay gap ineligible for government grants and contracts; requiring employers to report on the number of sexual harassment complaints made and the action taken in response; collecting intersectional data to identify hurdles for particular groups of women; and designing a targeted approach to addressing specific pay gaps. They were the reforms that we called for, and I'm very pleased to see that many of those recommendations were reflected in the final report of the WGEA review. I was pleased to see, in particular, the government act on pay transparency in the private sector, an issue on which I had a private member's bill in this chamber in 2015. I was pleased to see confirmation that the whole Commonwealth public sector will be reporting against gender indicators by 2024. I am also pleased also to see more of those recommendations being implemented in this bill and the revised minimum standards instruments.

The bill will require WGEA to publish employer-level gender pay gap data, it will require relevant employers to report to their governing body and it will recognise sexual harassment and discrimination as gender equality indicators. The new minimum standards instruments provide for more detailed reporting to bridge the gap between policy and action. In combination, these changes will help shine a light on pay inequality and encourage employers to take meaningful action. Greater transparency will allow employees to see where they are being short-changed, to call out employers for lack of action or to make the decision to move on if they feel like they are not being valued.

The changes will also allow more data on the intersectional pay inequality experienced by First Nations women, culturally diverse women, LGBTQIA+ women and women with disability. More work needs to be done to secure robust data collection for non-binary employees and to align data collection protocols across the public sector, but I do note the government's commitment to continue working on that.

But some of the things that we have called for have not yet been delivered. Firstly, there's what is reported. Many organisations who have made submissions to the inquiry into this bill called for employers to submit data on both base salary rates and total remuneration packages. Sectors that regularly use incentives or bonus schemes, such as law, finance and tech, are often male dominated, and failure to account for extra payments, generally weighted towards men, risks disguising gender pay gaps within those industries.

Reporting on salary should also capture overtime payments. Without that information, pay gap data in professions with high proportions of part-time and shift workers, such as retail, nursing and aged care, gets distorted. Women are often the least able to accept overtime shifts due to caring responsibilities. As I said at the outset, you can't fix a problem you don't understand. We need to make sure that the data that is being collected helps to understand workplace dynamics and why a pay gap persists in some sectors.

WGEA should undertake a review of the new gender equality indicators and reporting requirements within three years to identify any key data gaps and assess whether greater transparency on the listed indicators is driving meaningful change.

In relation to who has to report, as I mentioned before, the current threshold for reporting to WGEA is companies with 100 employees or more, and only companies with more than 500 employees are required to report against the more detailed gender equality indicators. This means that pay disparities and the volume of sexual harassment in many small and medium-sized businesses, a sector that employs a significant number of people in Australia, will remain underreported.

The Global Institute for Women's Leadership looked at gender pay gap reporting in a number of developed countries. The institute concluded that the issue of gender inequality is 'too important for gender pay gap reporting regimes to only target large employers'. The median reporting threshold amongst countries with gender pay gap reporting is 50 employees. This is the case in France, Belgium, Spain and South Africa. In Sweden, companies with as few as 10 employees are required to report. It is no coincidence that these countries have some of the lowest gender pay gaps. We will continue to call for the government to lower the reporting threshold and require companies and public sector entities with more than 50 employees to report against all the gender equality indicators. Small and medium-sized businesses must be supported to meet those new reporting obligations.

We urge the government to expedite work to bring state and territory public service bodies under the WGEA reporting regime. While various states require gender pay gap reporting, without harmonisation WGEA can't gather a consistent national suite of data to inform its analysis.

In relation to compliance, as identified in the WGEA progress report, reporting obligations have driven action in the past decade. But it has been too slow and too patchy. To drive a rapid cultural shift and close the gender pay gap, WGEA need powers to monitor compliance. They need to be able to hold employers to account when they fail to report or where their reports are incomplete or misleading. The workplace gender equality procurement principles on paper already seek to stop non-compliant employers from receiving government grants, tenders or contracts, but in previous years many non-compliant employers continued to receive government funding and contracts. We welcome commitments from the government to ensure that the procurement principles are given effect and provide a positive incentive for employers to work towards closing their gender pay gaps.

Companies with long-term government contracts must meet their annual reporting obligations and take meaningful action to address gender pay gaps or they must risk losing their contracts. We strongly support that approach. Public funding and procurement is an effective lever to drive change. Critically, WGEA needs to have adequate resources to monitor compliance and to identify companies that are struggling to close their gender pay gap. Companies should be supported with targeted training and workplace consultation, with assistance to develop action plans or by encouraging managers from similar types of organisations that have successively closed their pay gap to mentor others. We welcome the additional funding allocated to WGEA in the 2022-23 budget. The government must consult regularly with WGEA about whether any additional resources or powers are required to enable WGEA to achieve the aims of this bill.

Closing the gender pay gap is everybody's business. We welcome this bill as a positive step and urge the government to use its promised second tranche of reforms to implement the outstanding recommendations from the WGEA review and drive the change that all employees deserve. The gender pay gap is about equality and economic security, but I want to finish my contribution by talking about the fact that we have more women and children than ever before sliding into poverty, so we can't just have a tick-and-flick on this issue. We welcome these reforms on the gender pay gap reporting requirements, but we have a disproportionate number of women sliding into poverty, a disproportionate number of woman that are reliant on the inadequate JobSeeker payment and a disproportionate number of women who are single mums and currently receiving the inadequate single parent payment. Once their youngest child turns eight, those women then get punted onto the even lower JobSeeker rate, which is a drop of approximately $200 a fortnight.

We held a very moving forum yesterday morning where we had some amazing speakers, including Dr Anne Summers; Sam Mostyn, who's now advising the government through the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce; and a number of other really passionate advocates, including Terese Edwards from the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children. They are calling for the government to reverse that terrible decision to drop single mums off the single parent payment once their youngest child turns eight, and the Greens strongly back that call. They've have done the figures. It's a $1.41 billion cost, but it would be life changing for 500,000 single mums. Single mums are the hardest-working people that I know, and we will stand side by side with them and fight for them to have enough money to live on. It's great that we're talking about the gender pay gap in workplaces, but we need to broaden the conversation and talk about the gender wealth gap and talk about the fact that we still do not value women's labour and the unpaid care that we do every single day, disproportionately more than our male counterparts.

There are a lot of reforms that need to happen. I'm encouraged that the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce have quite a broad remit, and I'm really looking forward to their recommendations. I'm urging the government to get serious in the budget about gender equality. We've waited for so long. Things aren't getting better. Women are getting poorer and poorer. This is a budget priority issue for this government—it should be. Never mind the $368 billion for the subs, never mind the $254 billion for the wealthy—of course, most of them are men. Actually start funding women, value their unpaid labour and increase those rates of income support, both for people on JobSeeker and for those single parents. They are desperate. They are living in their cars or their tents, and it is not okay.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Smith, you've got about a minute and a bit.

11:13 am

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In my minute and a bit, it's great to be speaking on the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023. I want to respond to something that Senator Waters just said about the collection of data by WGEA. My understanding is that WGEA does use total remuneration, including super, overtime, bonuses and other payments. I just wanted to make a statement about that.

It is absolutely a privilege to be standing here talking to a bill called closing the gender pay gap—it's about time! We have been talking in this chamber for many, many years about the inequity that exists in the earnings of working women as opposed to the earnings of working men. The reality is that, for all of us who believe in a more equal future for working Australians, that more equal future requires and necessitates equity between women and men in the workplace. We know that when women go into the workplace—as Senator Waters just said—as well as all the additional caring responsibilities that they carry the additional burden of, to be frank, in most households in Australia, they also then enter the workforce and, for the same job, are not remunerated equally to their male counterparts. That has to stop. There has been a lot of advocacy in this space over many years—indeed, many decades—to close the gender pay gap, but what we do know is that the work we have done to date hasn't been working fast enough and hasn't been working effectively enough. We need to change our approach. We need to get tougher with our approach.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. It being 11.15 am, we will move to notices of motion.