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5 Ideas to Make Australia More Equal

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Workers in union have won a 2.5% increase to the minimum wage - that means the 1 in 4 working people who rely on the minimum wage will get a weekly pay rise of $18.80. It's a win for the working people in union who have consistently demanded wage increases - and it comes despite pressure from the business lobby and the Federal Government to freeze wages.

But an extra $18.80 a week is hardly the revolutionary change we need to address widening inequality in Australia. It might keep the wolf from the door, but the wolf is still out there. Thankfully, Victorian workers are organising to put wolf on the menu.

Here are 5 ways we would build a more equal country.

Free childcare for all

The ongoing pandemic has highlighted the importance of access to high-quality and affordable childcare as a component of our society, which is sort of a long way of saying, “Please honey, mummy is trying to sit through another zoom meeting.”


But childcare availability is not a new problem. The shortage of affordable and high-quality childcare means many Australian women find it difficult to return to work after having a child. Almost 450,000 Australians with children under the age of five would like to work more hours. This exacerbates gender pay inequality, creates additional barriers to workforce participation for women, and entrenches gender segregation in the labour market.

The Federal Government should provide ongoing, free, not-for-profit childcare, even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doing so would help to dismantle one of the significant barriers to women’s participation in the workforce and would significantly boost the disposable income of households as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. We already know the devastating impacts the pandemic has had on parents, with a national survey by The ParentHood finding 42% of families reporting at least one parent earning less as a result of COVID-19. The survey also found that 60% of households in Australia currently using childcare will have a parent forced to reduce work when out-of-pocket childcare fees return, and in 68% of those households, the parent who will stop or reduce work will be a woman. The lack of free childcare therefore has a directly negative effect on workforce participation, especially for women.

But getting parents back to work is only part of the benefit of universal early childhood education. The main one - the most important reason, is that every little kid in Australia deserves to start their education on the best possible footing. A recent OECD study found 11.5% of Australian students had not attended kindergarten, compared with the OECD average of 6.2%. That’s thousands and thousands of three and four-year-olds who are missing out on a head start to their life of learning, not to mention invaluable social interaction with their peers.

Importantly, the Government must also do more to create good jobs in the Early Childhood Education sector, regulating the casualisation of the industry and boosting wages. 90% of childcare workers are women and 70% of childcare workers’ wages are dependent on the Award, which puts the majority on close to minimum wage. As a result, workers have extremely limited opportunities for career progression, contributing to the extraordinarily high turnover rates in the industry. For childcare to be of high quality, we need workers to feel supported at work and have incentives to stay in the industry and gain experience. Governments need to ensure that childcare workers are on secure, permanent contracts and are paid higher wages to recognise the importance of their work.

 

Paid sick leave for all workers

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The COVID-19 crisis has truly exposed the issues impacting insecure workers. That includes those who are employed casually or through labour hire. And it encompasses workers deemed to be ‘independent contractors’ because they are employed in the gig economy or through contractual arrangements (often despite the presence of a relationship of employment).

80% of Victoria’s second wave outbreak of COVID was down to workplace transmission - workers having no choice but to go to work when they are sick.

As long as we allow a system of work to continue that means workers have to choose between going to work sick and to protect their job and put food on the table, we will be unable to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Even without considering the COVID-19 pandemic, significant productivity and serious health consequences occur every year because workers go to work when sick with illnesses such as the common flu. 

The McKell Institute’s July 2020 report ‘The Case for a National Scheme for Paid Pandemic Leave’ identified the inadequacy of leave provisions in Australian work. McKell found that 3.7 million workers in Australia do not have access to any paid leave. Amongst workers with access to leave, many have the NES standard of 10 days per year. COVID-19 has shown this is an inadequate provision. Further, the process of accruing leave at a rate of one hour per 26 hours worked is beneficial to long-term employees… but it’s manifestly inadequate as the rate of insecure work rises and the prevalence of job changes increases.

A permanent, codified and expanded entitlement to paid sick leave of at least 10 days per annum should be extended to all workers in Australia, regardless of their type of employment or nature of engagement. Workers should begin their employment with access to the NES minimum ten days’ sick leave and it should accrue from that point. Without radically overhauling our sick leave provisions, Australia remains vulnerable to infectious diseases.

To its credit, in the absence of Federal Government action the Victorian Government has stepped up with a pilot scheme.

Raise Jobseeker to $80 a day

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No person should live beneath the poverty line, no matter their circumstances. The Social Policy Research Centre has found that, at a minimum, a single employed adult with two kids requires $877 per week to live, yet the JobSeeker rate for a single adult with dependents is $431 a week (plus a maximum rental assistance payment of $82.04). These rates entrench poverty, punish marginalised communities and are therefore fundamentally unjust. With increased unemployment and underemployment rates during COVID-19, the need for a genuine safety net is apparent and urgent. The Federal Government must provide a permanent increase to JobSeeker to $80 per day.

The Federal Government must also revise the mutual obligations system to be more equitable to recipients, get people into good jobs, and avoid discrimination. We know that the current system achieves none of these key aims. We know that there are not enough jobs to go around, with 1.6 million people on JobSeeker but only 130,000 job vacancies in May 2020, and even fewer secure or full-time jobs. Yet we punish those who don’t apply for enough jobs as part of their mutual obligations. We also know that the funding model of JobActive providers means that job seekers with the most significant barriers to employment are deprioritised because it’s more profitable for providers to produce quicker outcomes in order to receive their government payments sooner.

The system is also discriminatory, with the reintroduction of mutual obligations in September resulting in the payments of 12,137 First Nation people, 12,135 culturally and linguistically diverse people, 13,169 disabled people and 6,334 single parents suspended in one month. Mutual obligations need to be completely overhauled, to prioritise assistance to the long-term unemployed and end inequitable mutual obligation requirements that punish families already under financial stress.

This is crucial for people with disabilities and their carers who continue to be disempowered through exclusion from the job market. People with disability are disproportionately underemployed (25.5% compared to 9.9% of all workers) and therefore subjected to poverty (with 1 in 6 people with disability in poverty, compared to 1 in 10 Australians without disability).

Carers are also disadvantaged because they are often forced into insecure work to get the flexibility they need to care for their loved ones - yet the carer allowance is a pittance of $65.95 a week.

For people with disability, the maximum weekly rate for a single person the Disability Support Pension (including all possible supplements) is $472.15. Yet it costs $548 for a single person to live above the poverty line, without even accounting for the fact that people with a disability need to increase their adult-equivalent disposable income by 50% to achieve the same standard of living as those without a disability.

Governments must simultaneously address recruitment practices that discriminate against disabled people and carers, and expand access to and increase the rates for the carers support payment and the disability support pension so that people can live in dignity, no matter their circumstances.

Workplace rights for gig workers and independent contractors

 

In recent times, apps like Uber and Deliveroo have allowed employers to construct the employment relationship as one of independent contracting, despite many of the elements of employment being present.

For example, Uber exercises a degree of control over their ‘worker’ as they set the rates they may charge, the minimum standards for vehicles used, and the route they should follow. This level of control is present throughout both gig economy platforms and many other sham contracting arrangements, yet ‘workers’ are still deemed ‘independent contractors’. This allows these companies to shift the risk onto workers and increase their profits, while their workforce struggles to make minimum wage. 

Under our current system of workplace laws, workplace rights and responsibilities are nearly exclusively given to employees and their employers. Independent contractors have almost no rights. They are prohibited from collective bargaining, excluded from the minimum wage, have no job security and unfair dismissal laws do not apply to them. It is therefore unsurprising that wage theft has been allowed to run rampant especially in franchises where this model is prevalent, and that wage growth has completely stagnated.

These issues could be avoided if workplace rights were instead attached to the worker, simply by virtue of performing work. By rewriting the Fair Work Act to ensure that rights are derived from work rather than from employment, we can ensure that all Australians have access to the minimum wage, leave entitlements and collective bargaining. It is time for government to step up and end the race to the bottom in labour cost-cutting that has driven wage growth to an all-time low.

Pathway to permanency for visa workers

The exploitation of migrant workers in Australia is systemic, pervasive and severe. The recent example of 7-Eleven provides a good example of just how deep and vast wage theft of migrant workers is, with its internal wage repayment program alone repaying over $150 million in unpaid wages to its workforce, made up mostly of international students. Indeed, migrant workers are overrepresented in workplace disputes, accounting for 20% of formal disputes, despite making up an estimated 6% of the population.

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The power imbalance between an employer and a worker holding a temporary visa is at the core of exploitative practices. Employers feel emboldened to test the limits of the law when migrant workers fear that their employer might jeopardise their visa status if they speak up, at the same time as facing discrimination in the job market because of their visa status.


For those whose visas are tied to specific employers, this power imbalance is even more pronounced as they face deportation if they are dismissed by their employer. Further, most bridging visa holders who do not have work rights in Australia are also excluded from even the most basic government support. Many turn to the gig economy or cash-in-hand work, with no choice but to expose themselves to exploitative practices in order to support their families.

Migrant workers need a meaningful and achievable pathway to permanent residency and citizenship, so they are not permanently tied to exploitative employers.

Care about equality?

If building a more just Australia is something you care about, join our movement. The only way for working people to build systems and services that benefit everyone, and to see more of the wealth we create, is to campaign together in union.

5 ways to make Australia more equal. Workers in union have won a 2.5% increase to the minimum wage - that means the 1 in 4 working people who rely on the minimum wage will get a weekly pay rise of $18.80. It's a win for the working people in union who have consistently demanded wage increases - and it comes despite pressure from the business lobby and the Federal Government to freeze wages.

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