The problem with ‘women’s work’

Aged care unions have found an ally in their campaign for higher wages, in the government agency responsible for promoting equal rights for women in the workplace.

Above: Helen Conway, director of EOWA

By Yasmin Noone

Caring skills and ‘women’s work’ is undervalued and consequently, underpaid, and it is this gender discrimination that prevents aged care workers from achieving higher rates of pay, a workplace expert said. 

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) has attributed the issue of low aged care wages to a gender-related bias and is now calling on employers to eradicate the pay gap between what the predominately female workforce currently earns, and what it should earn in a just and fair society. 

According to the Director of EOWA, Helen Conway, discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace still exists today even though 25 years has passed since the Affirmative Action Act was passed. 

“The gender pay gap in aged care reflects differences in the types and levels of jobs men and women do and differences in how those jobs are valued, in terms of their skill, responsibilities and working conditions,” Ms Conway said. 

“Aged care has most of the characteristics that have been found to be associated with gender-related undervaluation.

“The industry is female-dominated, and the work has often been characterised as ‘women’s work’ as it involves caring for people. The industry is not highly unionised and has a lot of part-time and casual work, generally carried out in small workplaces.

“The industry, like many in the services sector, has emerged more recently than some of the more industrially well-recognised occupations and industries. 

“There has been less attention to defining the value of the work. Access to training and career paths is less well-defined than in some industries, and qualifications are less recognised.

“For these reasons, it is timely for employers in the aged care industry to consider how they analyse and value the work in their sector.”

This gender-related pay gap in the aged care sector, Ms Conway said, must be closed by changing the values and culture of a society which still believes that caring work is just an extension of the duties women perform at home.

Gender bias could also be eradicated through additional government funding, specific to wages, or structural wage reform.

Today marks the agency’s Equal Pay Day, which aims to raise the awareness of the current 17.2 per cent pay gap that exists between men and women in many industries and sectors throughout Australia.

1 September was chosen as the national day because it is 63 days after the end of the financial year and, according to the agency, women have to work an extra 63 days to match what men earn.

The agency’s Equal Pay campaign has also confirmed what both of the sector’s main unions, United Voice and the Australian Nursing Federation, have been saying all along – that aged care workers are unfairly underpaid. 

Assistant national secretary for United Voice, Sue Lines, agrees that a gender-related bias is the major barrier that has prevented aged care workers from achieving substantial and sufficient wage increases. 

“Wage injustice in aged care is exacerbated by societal conventions that associate caring work as an extension of unpaid and undervalued work that women perform at home.” Ms Lines said.

“However, we know that men working in aged care tend to earn more than women. This demonstrates the way in which gender is implicated in perceptions of skill.”

Ms Lines encourages aged care workers to take note of Equal Pay day and say “enough is enough”.

“Wage injustice and part-time hours mean that low paid women workers accumulate few savings or assets and have low superannuation balances compared to the typical male worker.

“For aged care workers, this means that workers who have spent their career assisting older Australians maintain an adequate quality of life will not be entitled to receive those same luxuries.

“Aged care workers are blocked at every turn. Their work is undervalued, and the aged care system traps them in low pay. The constraints of the industrial relations system mean that enterprise bargaining is not the solution for aged care workers.”

The unions believe that the federal government, as the majority funder of the aged care industry, must exert its control over wages and intervene to achieve wage justice.

“The aged care sector needs to work together to ensure that the sector is adequately funded,” she said.

“However, it’s important that funding flows to wages. Without a sustainable workforce, we cannot provide quality care for an ageing population.”

The Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) is also using Equal Pay Day today to highlight the wages disparity affecting Australia’s under-resourced aged care sector – where women make up more than 90 per cent of the workforce.

“Unfortunately, the notion of an ‘Equal Pay Day’ simply doesn’t exist for low paid nurses and assistants in nursing working in aged care,” ANF Federal Secretary, Lee Thomas, said today.

“Nurses in the aged care sector are paid between $168 and $300 on average less per week than nurses working in hospitals. 

“Closing the wages gap is crucial if we are to improve the recruitment and retention of nursing staff in aged care.” 

The ANF said a $500 million funding injection is required to close the wages gap for low paid nurses and assistants in nursing (AINs) working in aged care.

“The majority of nurses and AINs are women, who are being paid far less than they deserve.

“…The ANF is calling on the Gillard Government to step-in and close the wages gap as a matter of urgency – Budget 2012 must be the ‘Aged Care Budget’.”

Tags: affirmative-action-act, anf, eowa, equal-opportunity, equal-pay, equal-pay-day, helen-conway, sue-lines, union, united-voice, wages, women,

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