7 July 2017

Young people and women hardest hit by insecure work in the ACT

| Emma Davidson
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Woman in blue t-shirt (face not shown) taking money from man who is buying macarons at a market stall

Understanding who is employed in insecure work in the ACT, and how it affects them, can help us understand why so many people in Canberra are in housing stress, can’t afford to visit their GP, struggle to find the time to look after their health or spend time with their family and friends, and feel that they aren’t valued.

The ACT Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Youth Affairs are currently undertaking an inquiry into the extent, nature and consequence of insecure work in the ACT. It’s important to understand the interaction between casual or contract work, and the hourly pay rate for workers in retail, hospitality, and healthcare and social assistance (which includes childcare and disability care workers). These three industries are the second, fifth, and seventh largest employment sectors in the ACT. They also employ significant numbers of casual and contract workers, and have low hourly pay rates.

For workers in these industries, it’s important to be able to work as many hours as they are able if they want to earn a living wage, and losing a contract can have dire consequences for people whose weekly pay doesn’t afford the opportunity to save for gaps between contracts. High numbers of women working in low paid industries, part time or as casual staff, may be part of the reason why the 2016 Census shows that more than 41% of women in Canberra earned less than the minimum wage ($694.80 per week), compared to 29% of men.

Even the largest employer in Canberra, the public sector (employing 17% of Canberrans, according to May quarterly labour force data from the ABS), employs growing numbers of contract workers.

The May 2017 quarterly labour force data from the ABS shows that women are the majority of all part time casual or contract workers. While 47% of women in casual or contract work are part time, the part time rate is only 30% for men in casual or contract work. Women also have a higher rate of underemployment in Australia, particularly in the retail and hospitality industries. For women working in retail, underemployment is 10.8%, while for men the rate is 5.6%. Unemployment is also higher for women, at 6.7% in the ACT compared to 5.2% for men.

For women with a disability, finding work is even harder. National data from 2015 shows that women with a disability in the had an unemployment rate of 8.3%, while the rate for women without a disability was 5.1%. In our research at the Women’s Centre for Health Matters, women with disabilities or chronic health conditions tell us that they find it difficult to let employers know about their health condition, because they are worried about what this means for their job security.

There are physical impacts on women working in retail, hospitality, and care work. Women talk about having to be on their feet all day, working until 1am and then getting up for a 7am shift the next morning, and childcare workers getting sick more often due to working with small children.

Low pay and lack of permanent employment also makes it harder for women to move out of home. They don’t earn enough to pay rent in the private market, and they don’t have the job security to feel confident that they won’t lose their bond if they move out of home and then lose their job. A 2015 report by the Housing and Homelessness Policy Consortium, ACT found that housing stress was highest among the retail (43%) and hospitality (33%) industries. Their modelling shows that 55% of workers facing housing stress are women.

So why are women more likely to work part time than men, and in industries with low pay rates and higher levels of insecure contract and casual employment? Part of the answer may lie in the levels of unpaid work women contribute to the Canberra community.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers in March 2017 showed that 72% of the unpaid childcare, domestic, and volunteer work in Australia is done by women, and that this does not improve as their household income level rises.

… as more advantaged areas may substitute unpaid work for paid domestic help, the remainder that is unpaid is still distributed at the same portion between men and women. An indicative illustration of this would be if a household that usually has 20 hours of unpaid work a week, a woman would conduct 15 hours of it and a man five hours. However, if they pay someone to take ten hours of that household work, although the woman would halve her hours to 7.5, the man would also reduce his to 2.5 hours.

There’s only so many hours per week that a person can work, whether paid or unpaid, before it begins to have a negative impact on their mental health. Recent research from the ANU shows that if men and women were able to share the unpaid workload equally, both men and women would ideally work around 34.5 hours per week to maximise paid work hours without damaging their mental health.

Access to affordable, quality education and training, and meaningful employment opportunities with job security and a living wage are important in helping our local economy grow, and ensuring a quality living standard for Canberrans. Women and young people working in retail, hospitality, and health and social assistance are an important part of our community.

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